28/07/2017 07:41 BST | Updated 28/07/2017 07:42 BST

Why Aren't We Embracing Female Talent?

As of April this year, the number of FTSE 350 companies with no women on their executive committees in 2017 has risen from 52 to a total of 60. To add insult to injury, the number of female executives who manage their company's budget has stalled since 2016, and now sits at just 6 per cent.

Needless to say, this figure, revealed in a new report by The Pipeline, a provider of executive leadership training specifically for women, is more than a little concerning. The report goes on to show that women accounted for only 16% of executive committee members at FTSE 350 companies. This is just not good enough.

However, as disheartening as these findings are, am I surprised by them? The sad truth - not at all.

The problem? Gender has been top of the agenda for a few years now. These businesses, having seen some improvements in female representation, give themselves a pat on the back, tick the box and then shift their focus to another priority.

This is a cycle I've seen in every decade of my career. There's a focus by leaders who want to do something about diversity, they take a few steps forward, congratulate themselves on the progress they've made, take their foot off the pedal and then, surprise surprise, they go backwards. Once a business takes its eye off the gender ball, female representation starts sliding.

The focus on targets for women as non-executive directors has been a distraction, however.

Appointing women to such roles is an effective way of quickly meeting a quota (ticking that gender box), while acting as an effective smokescreen to mask the fact that nothing has changed at the level of executive directors. Women are still being denied a real voice in boardroom discussions, limiting their impact on the business and the bottom line.

The real issue is that the talent pipeline needs addressing. Businesses are not identifying and rewarding good female talent at more junior levels in the workforce, and securing the future management and leadership pipeline for years to come.

It's clear, therefore, that there is still a great deal more to be done in order to balance the scales of gender equality in the boardroom. Instead of making quick decisions to tick the relevant box, decision makers should instead be taking steps to promote a pipeline that encourages and develops female talent.

A good starting point would be to investigate exactly where new executive board members are coming from and how talent is identified. In the search for people who have got what it takes to be a leader, there are two broad areas that are assessed: past performance and future potential.

Research shows that where you have a woman and a man equally highly rated on performance, the woman will typically be rated lower on potential. One issue here is that performance is more objective, because we have data to determine the rating. Potential is more subjective and consequently, it is open to gender bias.

Linked to this are our perceptions about what a 'leader' looks like, otherwise known as leadership prototypes. Whilst we certainly expect our leaders to have certain attributes, we also expect them - whether we realise it or not - to be white, straight and male.

Furthermore, when women do succeed in getting into senior roles, they are more often to be found heading up specialist central functions, such as HR, Communications or Legal. The more powerful positions tend to be headed up by men and it is these roles that lead to the very top positions.

Once women have been appointed to senior roles, there is an assumption that from that point on, the diversity that has been achieved will be self-sustaining. This doesn't happen because whilst it is true that men typically have a pro-male bias, the fact is that women also have a pro-male bias

and are just as likely to promote men to fill the top jobs.

The networks that form in organisations also mean that early in their careers, men are more likely to be allocated challenging projects to manage than their female peers. This has a knock-on effect, giving men more opportunities to prove themselves and as such, they appear to be more suitable candidates when it comes to promotion later in their career.

An additional knock for women is the impact of motherhood. It's often assumed in the business world that women returning to work will put their family first and career second, and as such, they won't want additional stress or to take on that high-pressure project. This results in women having fewer opportunities to prove themselves, however, the same assumptions are rarely, if ever, made of new fathers.

The solution to the problem of appropriately recognising female talent might, at first, seem obvious. Keep it an ongoing discussion and raise awareness of the issue. Where this approach becomes difficult, is that there are more risks for women to challenge the big guns and speak about sexism or women's rights in the workplace, as it will almost certainly be received negatively and will serve only to jeopardise perceptions of them; as well as negatively impacting their careers.

I most recently heard an example of this happening only last week. Two women, in line management positions and very good performers, have seemingly been punished for challenging their organisation to improve its performance on diversity. One has been dismissed as part of a redundancy round, the other has been treated harshly by her boss.

To inspire real change, we must force men into action and to do some of the heavy carrying. These individuals, found in businesses across all sectors, want to be associated with the right initiatives but won't commit to genuinely tackling the lack of recognition of female talent.

It's not enough to just doff your cap to the idea of having more talented women in the boardroom. Business leaders need to nourish the all-important talent pipeline, which will help them to find, recognise and invest in the female talent that is already present within their companies; staring them cleanly in the face.