Last week, a handful of websites picked up on Business Secretary Vince Cable's comments at a Start Up Loans event aimed at female entrepreneurs, where he told the Huffington Post that we don't need to change business culture to help women. Predictably, this coverage was eclipsed by remarks he made about immigration on the same day, but I'm not one to let this drop, especially since yesterday's report from the Women's Business Council outlined how much the economy is losing out as a result of women not joining the workforce.
Mr Cable acknowledged that women are "chronically under-represented" at the top of the UK's biggest companies, and indeed in government, but that the latter wasn't about to try and change the way boardrooms operated. He also referred to the goal of ensuring that by 2015, 25% of board members are female and stated that quotas are not a solution.
While I agree that quotas on their own are not the answer, I find Vince Cable's apparent ambivalence about the need to change the culture of British business surprising, given the vast amount of evidence to the contrary, and my own experience working with large organisations - both in the UK and overseas. Earlier this year, a report by recruitment firm Harvey Nash, which attracted plenty of media coverage found that "male dominated corporate cultures are the biggest barrier to women reaching the board". Additionally, earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it was noted that "Stereotyping and implicit biases continue to impede the advancement of women to top leadership positions in economic decision-making".
If I was to have the chance to debate the issue directly with Mr Cable, I'd start close to (his) home. Jo Swinson wrote in the Guardian in May that the UK's most forward thinking employers "know women can bring fresh perspectives, new ideas and experiences, and they know that an organisation that better reflects its customer base is better able to understand their needs".
This is true. However, in my experience, to shift the balance, it has to be a two-way street. Yes, women can as Sheryl Sandberg puts it, "lean in" to embrace opportunities and move up the ladder, but they would have far less of an uphill struggle if there were more enlightened businesses switched on to the benefits of tapping into the resources of their female workforce. I'm not saying that businesses deliberately go out of their way to obstruct women's progress, or to stereotype or discriminate. It's just that in many organisations, these cultural traits have simply become institutionalised. Likewise, many companies are open to change; they just don't know how to go about the shift or how to implement practical solutions, so the issue falls off the agenda and the status quo continues.
So what can businesses do? To achieve tangible results companies need to start an open conversation and listen to women to understand their needs, as well as the special attributes and skills they can bring to their business. This should start from the top, engaging both male and female leaders in the process so that they can help shape and demonstrate a more authentically enlightened culture.
Additionally, specific measures and programmes aimed at encouraging women to step forward for promotions, special projects or development opportunities are just some of the proactive measures that organisations can introduce to support any quotas that may be in place. As Mr Cable said, "naming and shaming" organisations are that are woefully below par might also influence the numbers game. However, I'm a firm believer in 'reverse psychology' and creating pressure by giving loud applause to those businesses that are already doing things well. The Times' recent 'Top 50 Employers for Women' focus report helps this cause and puts the spotlight on companies at the top of the female-focused leader board. Of course, practices that allow both male and female, parent and non-parent employees to balance life with work, such as flexible working, also have their place.
However, all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Over time requirements for smarter use of technology and energy, combined with societal trends means that business culture will have to change. Businesses will be forced to embrace new ways of working that account for their employee's needs and to hold on to the best talent - but it's vital to start to seize the day now because female employees at all levels are already starting to vote with their feet!
Christina Fee is a leading internal communications expert, and also founder of Women at Work. You can work with her at this event on 2 July to start to change your business culture.