THE BLOG
18/02/2016 17:07 GMT | Updated 16/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Why the Knight, the Dame and the Baroness have Their Work Cut Out When it Comes to Driving Diversity in the Workplace

While it might seem churlish to niggle, I can't help wonder if we shouldn't have had Sir Philip and Dame Helen's new roles - as chair of the influential Women on Boards review started by Lord Davies and deputy chair, respectively - reversed. Why not walk the talk and appoint a woman to the more senior role?

For those of us who want to see greater diversity in business, there can be few higher profile champions to have on our side than GlaxoSmithKline chair Sir Philip Hampton, UBM chair Dame Helen Alexander and Mitie chief executive officer Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith who have been given an official mandate to deliver diversity in British business.

Each sits at the top of their respective company. All are peers, too - no humble Mr or Mrs will do when it comes to an issue so important.

Yet while it might seem churlish to niggle, I can't help wonder if we shouldn't have had Sir Philip and Dame Helen's new roles - as chair of the influential Women on Boards review started by Lord Davies and deputy chair, respectively - reversed.

Why not walk the talk and appoint a woman to the more senior role?

Nor can I feel anything but frustrated by the significantly lower volume of media coverage that reported the announcement of an enquiry into Black and Minority Ethnic diversity in the workplace to be led by Baroness Ruby.

Without doubt, the challenges each will face delivering on their respective mandates are significant.

True, the UK's biggest companies reached a major milestone in increasing the number of women in their boardrooms when Lord Davies announced in his report there are no more all male boards in FTSE 100 companies last October. FTSE 100 firms had exceeded the voluntary 25% of women board members target - a target he advised should duly be replaced by the new target of 33% of women board members by FTSE 350 firms for 2020. To put this is context, in 2011 women made up just 12.5% of FTSE 100 board members.

But while board representation has improved, fewer than ten women are chairs or CEOs of the UK's biggest companies.

Female representation on the boards of IPOs is a pressing concern.

Following news that companies including insurers Hastings and payment processing group Worldpay were preparing flotations worth billions without female board representation, Financial News recently reported that the number of female board members on companies being listed for the first time has dropped to 10.1% - lower than in 2014 and 2013.

Meanwhile, according to executive search firm Audeliss, if current trends continue many female non-executive directors may leave their boards within the next 18 months as their terms expire which could mean a drop in the number of top women non-executive directors to 17%.

So how best now to achieve greater diversity?

As Shainaz Firfiray, an assistant professor at Warwick Business School told the BBC: it may not be enough for companies "simply to appoint women to board positions in response to external pressure".

Prior research has shown that women who succeed in typically male tasks such as leadership positions are "more disliked and derogated," implying that women confront obstacles in work settings that are not encountered by men to the same degree. She added: diligent management is needed to ensure their appointments are effective.

The challenges are just as great when it comes to ethnic diversity.

According to the Business in the Community Race Equality Leadership Team, there is a need to square the inverted pyramid that represents the current gulf that yawns between the proportion of people from a Black Asian and Minority Ethnic background in primary and secondary school (one in four) and in the UK working population (one in eight), and the proportion who are current private and public sector board members and executive teams (one in 16).

The answer, BITC suggests, lies in leadership, progression and recruitment - in short, building a supply chain within business up which the BAME population can progress.

The same idea - for "a talent pipeline" to develop female managers in business by ensuring the right conditions for women to succeed - was flagged by Sir Philip when speaking earlier this week about his latest appointment. And undoubtedly, such sentiments augur well.

Let's just hope it doesn't take another generation to persuade those businesses yet to acknowledge and embrace the value of diversity - in all its forms - to respond.