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We Must Challenge Ourselves to Achieve a Truly Meritocratic Workplace

17/03/2014 14:09 GMT | Updated 17/05/2014 10:59 BST

As only the second female Lord Mayor since 1187, I found International Women's Day on Saturday 8 March an important opportunity to reflect on how attitudes towards gender and diversity have changed over the 106 years since it was first held, and to look to the future to see the challenges that still need to be tackled.

All week, I had the privilege of engaging with some of the most inspiring women working today, including hosting a summit on the role of women in the City with my law firm CMS, called The Athena Summit alongside newly elected senior partner Penelope Warne. When I was elected partner in 1983, I was the only woman - and I had to ask! Now I am one of 50 in my firm, and other firms have also worked hard to see similar growth. I also hosted the City's annual International Women's Day breakfast at the Guildhall on Friday, and had the opportunity publicly to thank the BBC's Fiona Bruce and Refuge for their work on domestic violence. Women have come a long way, but it is hard to cope with the fact that human rights abuses against women are so prevalent in the 21st century. We all share a duty to raise awareness and safeguard the women in our society, and International Women's Day was a "day of days" to bang the drum for the positive influence of diversity - of all kinds - on the City.

We have come a long way in the last 30 years since the first Lord Mayor when equality of opportunity was simply a moral issue. This is now a strong business concern, given the focus on challenges to traditional "group think" and the need for innovation, and that is why the City of London can and must play a leadership role. Right now, it feels to me as if we are in the midst of a new wave of female leadership - particularly in finance - and we must seize the opportunity to work together to push this wave the whole way up the beach. Gender diversity is a vitally important issue and although I am delighted it is finally topping the agenda, we need to work harder on diversity across the board - ethnicity, sexuality, disability and social background, for example. If the change that is so sorely needed is to happen, we must push past the rhetoric and take action to increase not only the numbers but also the percentage in higher positions.

The fact that by 2013 nearly 550 CEOs from around the world had signed the Women's Empowerment Principles (which provide a roadmap for business to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community) is a good start but we must do more, both as individuals and as organisations.

Recent news that 20% of FTSE board positions are now filled by women has been hailed as a great leap forward in the representation of women, and this is indeed a positive development, but when we dig deeper into the statistics, we see that only 7.2% are executive directors; a paltry figure. Cherry-picking a few high-achieving women to fill a quota will not address the underlying issues that are holding women back. We need to tackle the underlying cultural issues in the workplace that are holding women back - whether they are old-fashioned practices, unconscious bias, poor talent management, mentoring and sponsorship or lack of flexible working or encouragement to return to work and develop careers.

If we are to create a pipeline of talent to empower more women to reach the top of their chosen careers, we must focus on the mid-level management stage where there are many very busy keepers of the talent pipeline. Marginally more women now enter financial and professional services than men, so it is clear that the talent exists. The keepers of the talent pipeline at all levels can be forgiven for being more focused on doing the work and brining in the next piece of business but they are only as good as the talent in their teams. They may have little time to devote to talent management but it should be one of the top KPIs and is very measurable. They can create a positive and flexible environment where diversity thrives, and talent develops. And this does not only apply to women. More employees - both male and female - are seeking more flexible relationships with their employers to handle family responsibilities. A great deal of work on this "agility agenda" and also applying a true meritocracy has been done to achieve higher retention and better productivity. The benefits drop straight to the bottom line.

There is a clear moral issue here, but now research has highlighted how much the failure to have a true meritocracy can damage economic growth. Christine Lagarde, Head of the IMF, recently told an audience at Guildhall that if women participated in the labour force to the same extent as men, the boost to per capita incomes could be huge - 27% in the Middle East and North Africa, 23% in South Asia, 17% in Latin America, 15% in East Asia, 14% in Europe and Central Asia. When we fail to tackle this issue effectively, we are missing out on one of our most important sources of talent: women.

I believe that a business that does not capture the benefits of diversity is less likely to be sustainable over the long-term. This underlines the UN's theme for this year - "equality for women is progress for all". The UK's return to economic growth has been rightfully celebrated; to sustain it we must focus on utilising all our human resources, and challenge ourselves to achieve a truly meritocratic workplace.