Women in UK Boardrooms at a Glacial Pace: Do We Care?

We find ourselves celebrating glacial progress, stalled in front of the question: do we want change enough? Do men and women both believe in the arguments for diversity strongly enough to accept the cost they incur?

The proportion of women in British boardrooms now stands at around 21% and you may be sure that many (including, inevitably, Vince Cable) will find this a cause at celebration. The Davies Commission in 2011 set as its target for 2015 25% female representation so the idea that this bashful goal might actually be met suggests progress. I'm not so sure.

Research by Tomorrow's Company paints a more complex and concerning picture. For women truly to be regarded as equals in the workplace requires more than meeting a pusillanimous target - a goal which, in itself, may not be a reliable marker for female progress overall. Women still find the culture of British business alienating and uninspiring. Many describe any form of flexible working as career suicide. The pipeline is still leaking - which is to say that talented women are still leaving leading corporations in droves. As Alison Maitland has pointed out, we still talk about 'working mums' not 'working dads'. Every time a female CEO is appointed, it's a big news story redolent with the implicit question: how will she cope? Stereotypes have proved stubborn and persistent while the current appetite for unconscious bias training suggests that there is a lot of it about.

Of the 21% of women now in British boardrooms, the overwhelming majority are non-executive directors. This means that they have significant power of oversight but only around 7% are actually in top executive jobs. We are being asked to accept that this is substantial progress (7%?!) and to be believe that, if we are just good patient women (as women should be) everything will come to us eventually. And because we've been socialised to be agreeable and not create a fuss, the airwaves are full of polite, pleasant women expressing mild satisfaction.

But it isn't good enough. Inside large corporations, law firms, accounting firms, parliament and TV production companies, lip service is being paid but real change remains elusive. It's twenty-five years since I ran my first company and I am still being asked by women, who are hungry to learn, how I managed to build companies and have a family. I'm still being asked who looks after my kids when I travel the world. I'm still advising, consoling and (I hope) steeling the nerves of women determined to go further. I wish that conversation had changed - but, for the most part, it hasn't.

I still look on aghast as generations of highly skilled, well educated intelligent women drop out of the workforce, hoping they might be let back in one day, after their children start school and life returns to 'normal'. I still hear women explaining they don't have as much power in the marriages because they don't earn as much as their husbands. I still see girls at school learning, at an alarmingly early age, to be pleasers and to keep their heads down. I still see masses of talent under-estimated, uninspired and under-utilized. And after 15 years of writing on this subject, one question remains as unanswered today as when I wrote my first book: are we seriously committed to investing in progress?

As women, we've argued that our advancement comes at no cost. Making a workplace culture appealing to women makes it more attractive to men too.It isn't just women who want to know their children before they've grown up and it isn't just women who want to work in ways, and on schedules, that value output not input. So the argument that helping women won't cost men works - up to a point. But if there are twelve board seats, all occupied by men, and diversity is a serious corporate intent, then some male directors will lose out.

We've carefully avoided this fact because we seek the opportunity, not the cost. And men have been loathe to point it out because it sounds recalcitrant. So we find ourselves celebrating glacial progress, stalled in front of the question: do we want change enough? Do men and women both believe in the arguments for diversity strongly enough to accept the cost they incur? At a time when we are struggling to find better ways to elad and manage the institutions that govern the wealth and health of nations, do we really think we have seen enough change and that we have enough wisdom, talent and insight at the top of our institutions?

Margaret Heffernan's new book A Bigger Prizewas published last month.


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