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Davies Report Highlights Boardroom Progress for Women But Important Gaps Remain

27/03/2014 15:19 GMT | Updated 26/05/2014 10:59 BST

Lord Davies today (26 March 2014) has published his follow-up report on the representation of women on FTSE boards. And there is some genuinely good news in it. Women now make up 20.7% of board members in FTSE 100 firms, up from 12.5% in 2011 when Davies brought out his initial report on the subject. Davies's goal is that women should hold a quarter of all board positions by 2015.

Progress also appears to have been made on the wider point of recognition of the benefits of equality to business, with levels increasing. This indicates that the issue is moving from reluctant tick-box compliance to a realisation that improving gender balance at the top table, and indeed all the way through companies, is simply good business. Diageo and Capita deserve plaudits for leading the way having both achieved 44.4% women on their boards.

However, before the business community becomes too dewy-eyed, I feel I must sound a note or two of caution. Firstly, the report highlights that there are still two boards in the FTSE 100, and 48 in the FTSE 250, that are made up entirely of men. Secondly, there is still too much emphasis on non-executive women on boards. We are succeeding in getting more women on boards but they are predominantly in non-exec roles. There must be a greater appreciation that until women hold executive responsibility then the full benefits of diversity, alternative perspectives, inputs and challenges, attitudes to risk and decision-making capabilities, will not be realised by UK plc. Real focus must be placed on strengthening and increasing the numbers of women in the executive pipeline. The percentage of women executives on FTSE 100 boards remains doggedly low at 6.9%, up only marginally from 5.8% last year, a shortcoming that Davies clearly acknowledges.

And thirdly, with Davies's 2015 target still some percentage points away I believe that we are now seeing that either there aren't actually enough board-ready women coming up through the ranks, or that there aren't enough women who want to go on boards in the first place. A fundamental problem is that potential board candidates are being selected and groomed at around the same time that women (and men for that matter) are having and raising children. Wouldn't it be so much better if we moved that whole process, realigning it to match with today's longer and less linear careers?

Currently we get established in business in our twenties; handle the family issues that come up in our thirties (having kids and older parents at the same time is onerous for this generation); and then end up asking where are all the women when we start to look around the office at people in their 40s? Hence the start of programmes like Returning Talent: much better to have someone that was trained up 20 years ago with some valuable life experience who needs to get more digitally aware than to try training up digital natives in their 20s who want to roam and find themselves - a group known as the Knomadics. In my own business, I have been fortunate enough to have attracted a whole network of fabulous women (and men!) who want to work autonomously and who seem to navigate the digital world with consummate ease, allowing them the opportunity to fit work around their lives.

Lord Davies points to some short term fixes that need to happen to get the numbers up before quotas get enforced. In his report he states that it will take fewer than 50 new female appointments to reach the 25% target of women on FTSE 100 boards. The 30% Club has also done terrific work campaigning on the same issues. However, fixing the leaky pipeline around the middle stages of people's careers when the need for more balance is paramount; is vital and that will require a real shift in culture... After all who wants a season ticket to Chelsea if you prefer the Royal Ballet?

The workplace remains a heavily male-dominated environment and we all must continue to strive for a workplace that gives women a level playing field.