By Andrew Moore, Director, DAV Management

With the recent furore about Brexit it is easy to forget about some of the other important business issues that organisations are grappling with in today’s modern and rapidly changing world.  In a recent DAV paper, we talked about the challenge of decision-making in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) business environment and why it’s necessary to develop leaders able to adapt and deal with such demanding situations.  Right now, it’s hard to think of anything that could be more challenging than the situation we now find ourselves in as we all attempt to understand, predict and navigate our way in a world post EU.

Yet despite this, I strongly believe one area that should not fall off the agenda is the continued and growing importance of women in leadership positions and the cultivation of a more gender-diverse workforce.  Indeed, in a recent CBI survey 88% of UK companies polled thought diversity was important for their company and the wider economy.  This includes diversity in all its guises such as gender, nationality, lifestyles, ages, sexuality, religion, physical and mental health capabilities, all of which it is felt enables better business decisions and makes for a healthier economy.

It’s interesting to note that many businesses today feel they have a gender diverse workforce and the statistics seem bear this out, with over half of the UK workforce now being made up of women.  That said, in the most recent Thames Valley Business Barometer (where DAV Management is a panel member), results revealed that only 29% of companies had more than 50% of women in the workforce.  At the same time the Barometer also picked up that three quarters of firms in the region feel they have a gender diverse workforce. So, at a local level, it is clear there’s still plenty to do.  Like businesses elsewhere in the UK, we need to ensure that this employee base translates into a pipeline of more women leaders and that we are not losing women at certain points in their career, or simply paying lip service to this goal by only focusing on increasing the number of women on boards rather than throughout the executive team and the next level of management.

The statistics do change depending on what industry you are in. For example, in the legal sector there are plenty of senior women and an attitude that is much more accommodating to flexible working. This makes the business more sticky and means that women stay for the long-term rather than leave due to the colliding pressures of home and work life.  Equally in our profession, business change management, we tend to come across a lot more senior women than in sectors such as financial services, or telecoms.

Picking up on the wider management team perspective, it is important to look beyond company boards to the next layer down and the executive roles, where strategic vision is translated into operational performance.  Disappointingly, the Thames Valley Barometer results showed that in 93% of companies polled, women make up less than half of the senior management team and half said that this statistic has been at the same level for the last five years.

To put this into a wider context, today just nine more female execs are employed in FTSE350 companies than in 2010, and the number of female CEOs has barely moved.

So, whilst women in business is firmly (and rightly) on the agenda, it just feels as though progress is not happening fast enough. And it’s important to acknowledge that this is not just an HR issue; CEOs and other executives could and should, do even more to help capable women progress from entry level to senior management positions. There is plenty of compelling evidence that developing more women leaders will make a real difference to the success of the UK economy, our productivity and the UK’s future place in the world.  And where better to look than in the ranks of your own talent?

So what do companies need to be aware of going forward?

The recent Lord Davies review into women on boards did three things extraordinarily well:

  1. It set a big, bold and simple target that was measured against and reported on.
  2. It fostered networks of people who set about solving the problem, sharing ideas and getting things done.
  3. It kept reminding people why it mattered.

So whilst there might not be mandatory targets in this country, businesses would do well to set voluntary targets to increase the amount of women in leadership or senior positions, because as the argument goes, what gets measured gets done.

The Thames Valley Business Barometer found that 87% of companies don’t have a formal programme in place to address gender diversity, so this is an obvious place to start addressing the issue and whatever is put in place needs to be practical and achievable. There has been lot of talk over the years about glass ceilings. Perhaps now we need to focus on creating sticky floors.  Businesses need to consider why women are choosing to leave and put in place practical programmes to counter this. For example, some companies are struggling to attract women out of schools or universities, while others have no trouble attracting women initially but find they leave after a few years.  In many companies women are choosing to step down just as they get into senior positions because they feel they have to make a choice between work and a home life balance.  With today’s modern working practices and a more flexible approach to business, surely it is in our best interest to have a more accommodating approach to ensure that we keep talent within the business rather than let it go.

So while Brexit news will no doubt dominate for the foreseeable future, I am convinced that one way that we can all get ahead is by making the work environment ‘stickier’ and more attractive to women, with a clear, practical and achievable career progression to executive management and beyond for those who want it. This is a sure way to make any business more balanced, profitable and competitive in the long term.

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