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Workplace Equality: What Big Businesses Can Learn From SMEs

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New research from Experian has good news for women in business - a study of 2.7m businesses in the UK has found that the number of female directors has increased by 240,000 since 2007. This represents an increase of 24 per cent - compared with a 15 per cent increase in male directors - and seems to imply that some progress is being made. The report also shows that it is SMEs leading the way -bigger companies that follow their lead and make some New Year's resolutions for gender equality will reap the rewards of a well-balanced and diverse workforce.

This year has been a bumpy ride for businesswomen - 2012 has seen an increase of just 2.5 per cent in terms of women on FTSE 100 boards, as revealed in the Cranfield School of Management Report, whilst research by the Chartered Management Institute showed an average pay gap of £10,060 between men and women at management level in UK businesses. Meanwhile, EU calls for gender equality on boards to be addressed by a quota quick fix were rejected by women and men who felt that this would be unconstructive and unsustainable.

The phenomenon of Norway's 'golden skirts' - the relatively small number of multi-tasking women who between them fill the country's quotas - demonstrates the likely outcome of this misguided approach. Quotas act as a sticking plaster, not a solution. Ultimately, it's not just about getting women on boards in the short term, but about supporting women throughout their careers so that they can aim for board and senior leadership roles if they so choose. Diversity at the top of business means innovative thinking by high-performing teams who can complement one another's strengths. Whilst parachuting women in to fill these roles does address the need for wide-ranging approaches and opinions, developing home-grown talent, and building an effective pipeline, has further advantages in terms of developing employees' niche expertise and making the most of their proven fidelity to the business.

Facing up to the challenge of gender diversity can have exponential benefits for employee engagement and ultimately business productivity. Demonstrating to young female employees that women have equal opportunities to thrive in the organisation will motivate and inspire them, whereas a company with no female role models risks disenfranchising and dis-incentivising a good half of its potential recruits. However, only a third of FTSE 100 and just 16 per cent of FTSE 250 companies are able to provide details on the pipeline of female talent within their organisation. What isn't measured isn't managed, and it is important that companies set goals and aim for a well-balanced and prosperous 2013.

Experian's research showed that SMEs typically have more female directors, though the gap is narrowing. This year, 50 per cent of small companies had female directors, compared to 40 per cent of larger companies with 250 employees or more. In 2007, these figures were 48 per cent and 33 per cent respectively.

Why are SMEs ahead in terms of female directors? This could be because more subtle skills such as diplomacy, collaboration and trustworthiness can be noticed in a smaller organisation, whereas in bigger companies it is all too often those who shout loudest who make the fastest progress. Businesses should look again at how they define and select talent to ensure that these models do not unwittingly filter out women. SMEs may be able to be more agile in their human resourcing strategy and keep step with changing demands.

Here are my New Year's resolutions for businesses big and small who want to get the best from their gender diverse workforce:

1. Aim for diversity throughout the business - this does not just mean a quick-fix at non-executive director level, but also entails looking again at who you are attracting and recruiting then revising job specifications and making sure your graduate scheme and other vacancies are marketed widely

2. Support female career planning - we recently surveyed over a thousand workers and found that a considerable 45 per cent of women don't have career goals, compared to 33 per cent of men. Women can find it harder to ask for promotions and often frame achievement in terms of their team rather than their own input, so managers must be conscious of this tendency to under-sell

3. Encourage female role model mentoring - create a positive spiral whereby your senior female staff are visible and available to give tips and advice on their own career paths to younger staff

4. Consider women's workplace incentives - our survey asked respondents to select the three most motivating factors in their working life. 51 per cent of women chose 'colleagues I enjoy working with', 49 per cent selected financial incentives, and 39 per cent chose flexible working. Companies that allowed flexible working during the Olympic Games this summer found productivity was boosted, suggesting that this is a win-win strategy for businesses and families.