There has been a lot of fanfare this week around the reaching of the 25% target for women on boards. Lord Davies set this voluntary target for FTSE 100 companies back in 2011. It's clearly a good thing that boardrooms are getting more diverse and having a target has meant the whole issue has been in the news for the last few years.
Let's hope it doesn't fade now because behind the figures is the bigger picture. Most of the increase in women on boards has come from the appointment of non-executive directors. That's the easy way to boost the figures. Moreover, the same people often have more than one non-executive role so the numbers of actual women on boards might not be quite as high as the figures suggest.
Recently the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development published research showing there has only been a 1.8% increase in women at executive director level since 2012.
The good news, though, is that 89% of the businesses it surveyed thought that gender diversity was good for business and could improve boardroom effectiveness. Half wanted to see a separate target to help increase the proportion of women in executive director positions and over half said voluntary targets for female representation on boards should be raised from 25%, with 50% being the favoured choice.
The problem is how to get to those figures. The main block to women's career progression occurs at the middle management level, often at precisely the time women take time out to have children, even if only a few months. Many return on flexible hours, although increasingly that flexibility is flexi hours and a bit of homeworking on full-time hours. Women are also less likely to put themselves forward for promotion. HR experts endlessly cite the fact that women will only apply for a role if they meet all the criteria and then some, whereas men are more likely to throw their hat in the ring if they just meet a few.
A number of women who come back after having children face an unsupportive workplace as well as subtle or sometimes blatant discrimination. Often this is linked to received ideas that a woman with children will not be as "committed" as she was before. Strangely, this idea does not seem to apply to men who are fathers. The combination of lack of support, lack of confidence and adjusting to being a working parent can undermine career progression.
So what can companies do? Many are setting up women's networks, parenting networks, mentoring schemes and the like. However, a report published by recruitment consultancy Guidant Group shows that what mums think is absolutely crucial is not support groups but the attitude of their line manager. The report, Keeping Women In, is based on interviews with 250 working mums who are keen to progress their careers. Melanie Forbes, chief executive of Guidant Group, says she was moved to tears by some of the obstacles women had come up against. She says: "Only one thing will change this and that is a cultural shift which is supported by male leaders who really want it," she says. "Employers need to understand that if they want the best talent they need to do things differently." That means not just supporting more flexible ways of working, but improving the training of managers in the kind of "people skills" that involve some degree of empathy with their colleagues.
Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: why it matters and how to get it, believes empathetic skills can be of huge benefit at work and that employers are beginning to realise this. He cites recent US research that shows a significant proportion of jobs advertised for over $100,000 are seeking empathy as a core skill. Krznaric believes skills, such as empathetic listening can reduce conflicts at work and help people reach agreement or at least feel more understood. Moreover, he adds that innovation is linked to an ability to step into your customers' shoes.
However, he doubts that CEOs brought up in a hierarchical, dog eat dog culture will be able to suddenly change habits that have been developed over time. The best way to change work culture, he says, is to start by recruiting people based in part on their empathy skills. With a focus on leadership support and the business case for greater diversity at every level of organisations and an emphasis on empathy as a core skill work culture might eventually be fit for the 21st century.