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Women on the Board

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At the request of Vince Cable and Theresa May, Lord Davies of Abersoch published his first 'Women on Boards' report in March 2011, recommending that companies should set targets to ensure that more of the UK's exceptional women are able to secure the country's top jobs.

A recent Deloitte report found that since Lord Davies published his report, almost a third of non-executive appointments in FTSE 350 companies have been women. However, we also need to address the number of female executive appointments. This is where many of the non-executive directors of the future are likely to emerge from and we are still seeing only one in 10 recent executive director appointments filled by a woman.

So what can UK companies do to recruit at board level and ensure they comply with the Davies Report?

Focusing on appointing more women at board level to fulfil certain quotas is missing the point. In order for corporates to get the best mix of skills and experience in the boardroom, they need to address the gender issue much earlier in the process starting with entry level positions. If a quota is to be applied it should be done then, where to a certain extent it is a numbers game. You can't promote women to board level unless you have a healthy pipeline of suitable candidates thriving within your organisation.

In order for this pipeline to survive, organisations need to tackle the age-old hurdles that confront women, such as the 'old-boys networks' and the cultural battles facing women wanting to achieve in 'a man's world'. A hard-nosed male sales manager can be perceived as 'ambitious' and 'successful', while a women displaying similar traits can be branded a 'bitch'. And then comes the real career killer - maternity leave!

A forward thinking corporate aiming for a gender balanced board will address these issues with honesty and integrity without losing their commerciality in a sea of political correctness. Throughout the pipeline, honest appointments of the right person for the job, male or female, will ensure a balance, as long as the trainee intake itself was suitably mixed (although this in itself is a difficult task in some organisations where it's 'who you know, not what you know'). Equally, a good employer will recognise the talents of an individual and reward on those merits, not have a preconceived idea of how people should act or react based on their gender or any other irrelevant factor.

Finally, employers need to accept the fact that women give birth. This is not a talent that can be passed on to the other partner. It is also an event that is highly likely to happen during their most productive career developing years 'en route' to the board. This area is probably the most difficult for both ambitious women and their employers and won't be assisted by convoluted government legislation or maternity laws. The key to this lies with the relationship between employer and employee.

Employers should be willing to listen to, and consider, the thoughts of the employee regarding how they can work through and around maternity leave and their child's early years. They should accept that although the individual's professional development may not increase at a dramatic rate during this period, they will still continue to be a productive member of staff and wish to continue their career development as soon as they returning to work. Similarly, an employee who was previously on a rapid career ascent may have to accede that this may slow for a while. If she realises that she will not be marginalised in the meantime then her ascent will certainly start again with renewed vigour. In order for this to be beneficial for both employer and employee, there needs to be a fine balance between the needs of the employee and the commercial needs of the employer, which can only be achieved through open communication.

In this way, successful corporates can work with their employees to build more gender balanced corporate structures in the future, with a healthy gender, age and experience mix for the boards of 2020.

A board with a good mix of genders, ages and experience will always offer more than that with a single sex, similar age and narrow experience profile. Having a variance in opinions, thought processes or just different ways of looking at an issue will always result in more well-rounded decision making. However, the success of this mix relies on company politics being left at the door and each individual (regardless of age, experience or gender), having the right to offer their opinions without fear of repercussions.

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