THE BLOG
06/10/2015 06:03 BST | Updated 05/10/2016 06:12 BST

Why Role Models Can Help Address the Boardroom Imbalance

In the world of business, performance is everything. Loss and profit are the margins that dictate success and failure at the top of our largest companies. Cue a raft of changes at the helm of the FTSE 100 elite: female executives are making the marginal gains.

In the world of business, performance is everything. Loss and profit are the margins that dictate success and failure at the top of our largest companies. Cue a raft of changes at the helm of the FTSE 100 elite: female executives are making the marginal gains.

Newly published data from Grant Thornton has shown that top companies with female executive directors will secure a higher return on assets - around 0.5% in the UK and as much as 1.9% in the S&P 500. As Grant Thornton's Francesca Lagerberg asserted, "diversity leads to better decision-making."

This is welcome news indeed. And yet it remains unlikely that the publication of these statistics will lead to a significant shift in power at the top of the FTSE 100. It was regarded an achievement when the latest Davies Report showed that female representation on the boards had risen to 23.5%. Scratch beneath the surface and the obstacles to equality remain substantial with the research showing that just 13% of FTSE 350 companies have at least one female executive on the board.

The struggle for equality at the highest level can feel like fire-fighting. The superficial, if still substantial, disparities in pay and power at the top mask the root of the problem. Without a consistent stream of women aspiring from the earliest age to be leaders of business, politics, and science, the problem of equality cannot be tackled.

How then do you translate the recent success of female executives into an aspirational story for young women? To turn to Francesca Lagerberg again, "the work we have done articulates the advantages of diverse boards in a language that businesses will understand." I would dispute that the work to celebrate the virtues of female leadership must turn to those with the most to gain from coming on board - young women.

Let's begin by convincing women of their own importance in society, rather than turning to often male-dominated business to find appreciation and vindication. This year's Woman's Hour Power List painted a picture of powerful women in politics and the media. The editors of The Guardian, The Economist, and Vogue alongside the Scottish First Minister offered icons of female influence in modern society. However, the story is far from complete.

Talking about influence in the twenty-first century, we cannot avoid the power of social media. Earlier this year, the Female Lead unveiled new data that showed British women are far more likely to follow television personalities and pop stars on Twitter, than their male counterparts. Men on the other hand, follow a more diverse range of influencers, which also includes business leaders, politicians, scientists and sports stars. An elite of celebrity showed itself as the dominant force of female influence as 40% of the most popular accounts for women in the UK were reality TV stars. Nicola Sturgeon, at the summit of Woman's Hour power, can muster just 5% of the followers that Tulisa commands.

In order to reverse the trends of popular fandom and address the boardroom imbalance, we need to start convincing young women of their own ability and inspire them to realise their potential across any profession. We need to present a broader range of dynamic female role models that they can aspire to, by shining a spotlight on the brilliant and successful women, from scientists to chefs, from architects to entrepreneurs, and everything in between.

Young women need to be shown that success and satisfaction can come from a variety of professions and vocations, not merely celebrity status, and - crucially - that the boardroom is not the unattainable, male-dominated place that it is too often conveyed as.

While rising profits and impressive returns can convince the powers of business, it is through reshaping the icons of female leadership that we can truly redress the balance of the boardroom.

Edwina Dunn is CEO of digital insight business Starcount and Founder of The Female Lead.