THE BLOG
30/10/2015 07:56 GMT | Updated 29/10/2016 06:12 BST

Where Next for Women in Business?

The business case for more women on boards is clear: increase the numbers of women on your company board and you expand your talent pool, appeal to a broader base of customers, and boost your company's reputation. We know that boards with significant female representation outperform their male-dominated rivals, and it was great to see those companies who have been leading the way on women on boards recognised in the Davies report today.

I was also glad to see that the debate is moving away from a focus solely on mentoring and training and onto the real barriers and cultural obstacles that prevent the full spectrum of talent our country has to offer from getting to the top in business. As my colleague Chuka Umunna said in an adjournment debate he called in parliament yesterday on diversity on boards, 'there are simply too many people out there with the talent and ability who are not being appointed'.

So while we rightly recognise the progress that's been made, it is underwhelming to hear Lord Davies recommend a target of just 33% for women on boards over the next five years. Being one third of a board isn't equality, and would represent a slowing of progress compared to what's been achieved since 2011. Today's report notes the stubborn lack of progress on the number of Women CEOs - with the exact same number now in the FTSE 100 as there were in 2011. Only 8% of executive directors in the UK are women. When it comes to women in senior leadership positions in business, the glass ceiling remains pretty solid.

Further progress therefore demands that the next steps recommended by Lord Davies are taken forward as matter of urgency. Regular reporting mechanisms need to be put in place alongside greater transparency around board recruitment processes. Davies's recommendation for an independent steering body to help advance gender representation in business must be swiftly implemented to be fully functional within weeks, not months. We urgently need to see an increase in the numbers of women company chairs and CEOs. That requires business to act now to develop and promote the pipeline of women below executive level.

We can also apply what Davies shows us has worked in achieving greater gender equality to other excluded groups. The prospect of more stringent measures from government to address the lack of women on boards persuaded business to take swift voluntary action. Could a similar approach encourage business for example to make improvements in ethnic minority representation, as Chuka suggested yesterday?

And, finally, while the focus today will be on the progress made on increasing the numbers of women on boards, we must not forget that is just one aspect of the discrimination and disadvantage still experienced by women at work. According to Maternity Action, 54,000 women were dismissed or forced out of their jobs because they became pregnant in 2015. 78% of those working in health and social care, one of the lowest-paid sectors, are women, and the UK gender pay gap still stands well above the EU average. Action is long overdue to tackle these injustices.

So while we reflect on the progress made by business on numbers of women on boards today, we must set our sights on achieving equality at every level in every workplace. Lord Davies has shown us the scale and speed of change that can be achieved when we focus energy, commitment and effort. Now is neither the time for humble ambitions, nor to take our foot off the accelerator.

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