23/05/2014 08:04 BST | Updated 21/07/2014 06:59 BST

Women in the Workplace, Be Confident Not Cowed

With the recent announcement by Lord Davies, Britain's former trade minister, that women now account for 21% of board members in the FTSE 100 firms and that this figure looks well placed to meet the target of 25% by 2015, now more than ever it is time for women in business to stand tall and know their value. The tide is turning.

That said, we still have a long way to go to achieve equality in the workplace. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, women continue to be under-represented and there is still a significant gender pay gap. It is, regrettably, still a man's world - commercially speaking at least - and yet there is no shortage of talented, ambitious women in the UK and Ireland. The impressive list of nominations for the 2014 First Women Awards, in association with Lloyds Banking Group, is testament to that. Women have a valuable contribution to make in business, but there are many hurdles along the way. The first - and the most intensely personal - is to possess an innate confidence in their own ability to succeed.

Along with 'bossy' and 'assertive', the word 'confident' conjures up negative connotations when it comes to women in the workplace, something Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and the likes of Beyoncé are trying to redress. As Sandberg wrote when launching her #BanBossy campaign recently, "When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a 'leader'. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded 'bossy'."

Once embedded in the workplace, especially those more male dominated sectors, women constantly have to strike the right balance between expression of such desirable commercial traits as fearlessness, resilience, ambition and technical proficiency, while simultaneously appearing kind, supportive, nurturing and inclusive. Err too much towards single-minded ambition and you will be judged, perhaps even sidelined; something that would never happen to a man.

Given the necessity for such complex behavioural tendencies it is hardly surprising that many bright, capable women are cowed into keeping their mouths shut and their heads down. However, as the UK continues to face tough economic challenges, the world of business cries out for more dynamic, entrepreneurial minds, and so it has never been more important to fully capitalise on the skills and talents of our worker population, regardless of gender. To put a number to it, the Women and Work Commission found that unleashing women's full potential could be worth £23 billion a year to the Exchequer. Philip Hampton, Chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland comments in the Women on Boards 2014 Report that "Improving gender balance in the boardroom not only increases the performance of the board and strengthens the business but is also good for the UK economy, as it enhances our competitiveness, ability to attract talent and reputation for good governance in a global market."

Building the confidence of women in the workplace in not insurmountable, despite the labels and limitations with which we grew up. Companies looking to nurture strong potential can help draw out the best in their employees by offering regular appraisals with two-way dialogues and tailored advice that focuses on strengths and future challenges - all designed to boost morale and confidence in their ability.

And, as in every other aspect of life, there is no better aid to confidence than in leading by example. More women in the boardroom and exposure to female role models in senior positions has to be the most prosaic demonstration to young women entering the job market that confidence pays. The most forward-thinking businesses assign experienced female mentors to encourage and guide their female counterparts.

So the tide is turning. More women than ever before hold top positions and this is now being seen as great business sense. Confident, assertive and ambitious women are changing the culture of the workplace and there is a growing recognition of the benefits of equality to business. Just 48 new women appointments to FTSE 100 boards by 2015 will mean the 25% target set in 2011 will have been achieved. Together, I believe we can beat that target - and the British economy will benefit as a result.