Male, Pale and Stale: The Gender Gap in the UK's Leading Roles

09/10/2012 23:14 BST | Updated 09/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Jobs that direct our society must reflect the variety of thinking, experiences and backgrounds that define it. That is why we desperately need to close the gender gap in the UK's leading roles.

Almost half of FTSE 250 boards have no female board directors. Just four of 87 executives appointed by FTSE 100 companies in the past two years have been women. In the fashion industry - a supposedly female area - just 5% of board members are women. Only 22% of MPs and peers are women, and our Supreme Court has 11 men and only one woman.

Globally, the UK recently ranked 33rd in terms of female economic participation and opportunity, behind Lesotho. Other European states are streets ahead. Sweden's MPs are 46.4% female, while Norway's boards are 40.1% female through quotas. Of the OECD countries, only Azerbaijan and Armenia employ fewer female professional judges than the UK.

Targets and quotas in FTSE boards have dominated recent discussions on this problem, including Lord Davies' influential report. While this is important, it's only one half of the picture: the other side, namely our approach to childcare and parental leave, will determine the future of this problem.

In the context of childcare, the disparity isn't surprising. 86% of men work full time, compared with 56% of women. Men are simply more available to rise quickly through the ranks. The gender pay gap increases after the age of 29 - the average age of motherhood. So, it is the first few difficult years of family life that policy should target, to help women ensure they ultimately reach the top jobs. And solutions must be applicable to all careers, not just FTSE boards. How can we tackle this?

The first step is our attitude towards parental leave. Britain lags behind Europe in having one of the highest levels of maternity leave and lowest levels of leave for fathers. In Sweden, parents take 480 days leave between them - and Sweden's boards and parliament have significantly higher proportions of women. But change is underway. Under a new system planned for 2015, mothers will have 18 weeks automatic leave, fathers six weeks, as well as another seven months to be split between them. This is long overdue: parenthood will be divided more fairly and discrimination in hiring will fall since the risk of an employee seeking parental leave will be more equal between the sexes.

The second step is moulding a balance between family and work life. The best solution for many employers is flexible working. BT's flexi-hours system has resulted in 90% of female employees returning after maternity leave, over double the industry average. There are various combinations of home working and flexible or part time office hours, and a recent YouGov poll found that over half of adults think they'd be able to do their job from home. Flexible working need not be permanent, but in children's early years it can be vital in ensuring that women are able to continue to advance their careers. Flexi hours can be good for business, too. BT regard this as a business philosophy focusing on targets rather than rigid hours and locations and according to BT's chairman, "it has saved the company millions...motivated our people and released more potential".

These ideas help to tackle the third problem: the high cost of childcare. British families spend almost a third of their income on childcare, compared with 4.6% in Sweden or 8% in Germany - a crippling amount in the current economic climate, which forces many women to stay at home. Elizabeth Truss MP recently called for an overhaul in the childcare system in a report for CentreForum, aiming to increase the number of childminders and make childcare more affordable. Additionally, businesses can do their part: Ford provide an on-site crèche at Dunton Technical Centre, where around 3,000 staff work.

The solution is evidently multifaceted, requiring the full support of employers and businesses, the government as well as both parents. And of course, diversity doesn't stop at gender, and inequalities by class, race and region remain prevalent. But the current system continues to leave women severely underrepresented - this is an issue not just for women, but for our economy and society as a whole.