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Chris Parke

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Women are on board, but work is still needed


It's one year on from the Lord Davies report, and Chris Parke says there is still a long way to go when it comes to equality in the boardroom.
A year has passed now since Lord Davies' review into women on boards, and – it would seem – that some progress has been made. In January there were reports of a 'record rise' in the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. According to the report, the number of women board members rose from 12.5% in January 2011, to 14.9% in January this year following several years in which little progress was made. However, it seems that much work is still needed. A report in the Financial Times last month painted a somewhat bleaker picture. It stated that 89% of FTSE 350 companies still have no female executives on their boards and that any progress being made is going at a 'snail's pace.' And, all figures reported fall short of Lord Davies' target of having 25% of women on FTSE board by 2015.
But rather than sit and wait for things to improve or for Lord Davies to impose quotas, companies could take action now to develop and support the progress of women in their companies and ensure a pipeline of future female leaders. One glaring areas to be addressed is pay inequality. Unfortunately, it still exists in many companies and it is unacceptable. Companies need to double-check there are no inequalities in pay levels for men and women doing the same job and if there are, address the situation. We would also recommend that companies encourage greater openness and more discussion about pay in general. I believe that if there was greater transparency in companies about this issue, women would become more assertive about asking for promotions and pay rises.
"Establishing a mentoring programme can be a good way of enabling women to envisage their future in an organisation and encouraging their progress"
Another area for companies to analyse is their retention of female employees, particularly around career crux points such as maternity. Many companies lose senior women when they take maternity leave – particularly the second time around. Companies need to consider how to best manage and retain female talent at these times. Establishing a mentoring programme can be a good way of enabling women to envisage their future in an organisation and encouraging their progress; setting up women's networks are also useful in terms of enabling employees to connect with others in a similar position allowing them to share ideas and experiences. They could also offer group- or one-to-one maternity coaching programmes for female employees and line managers would ensure these women experience both a smooth exit and a seamless return into the workplace.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that the majority of senior women in UK companies feel there are barriers that hinder their progression. The report, 'Ambition and Gender at work', from the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) last year concluded that women aspiring to senior management positions believe the glass ceiling to career progression still exists. 73% of female respondents felt barriers still existed for women seeking senior management and board-level positions in the UK. In contrast, just 38% of men believed there is a glass ceiling.
Given these statistics, it seems that the obvious solution lies with the organisations themselves – they need to promote female talent, champion diversity and ensure that their organisational culture supports women and men equally. If Lord Davies' 25% targets are to be met, then they will also need to proactively identify and promote female talent at all levels - from graduate trainees upwards. Only then will companies have a pipeline of future women leaders. Once such talent is identified then it needs to be nurtured with appropriate training and coaching provided for women throughout their careers with a company to ensure they stay on track and reach their potential.
Where companies provide executive coaching for women going through maternity – it can have a very positive impact on their retention rates. We run coaching programmes for groups of women in a business via webinar and also coach on a one-to-one basis. The coaching covers issues such as how to hand over work, communicate pregnancy and how to make the transition in and out of the office seamlessly.
"Where companies provide executive coaching for women going through maternity – it can have a very positive impact on their retention rates."
One client who has benefited from our maternity coaching programmes is Citi. The company is an advocate of coaching as an important tool in terms of people development and employee retention. In addition to maternity coaching, it also provides one-to-one executive coaching for senior women in the maternity transition and workshops for first time dads.
The programmes have had a positive impact on Citi's retention rates. The company reported that its retention of women who have undertaken maternity rose from 84% to 97%. Financially, this has led to cost savings because the company has not had to recruit replacement employees.
So it clear there are several ways that UK companies can actively progress and support women in business and ensuring a talent pipeline will secure leadership potential. Clearly, complete gender inequality won't happen overnight, but it won't happen at all without proactive measures being taken by companies to instigate change.

Chris Parke is CEO of Talking Talent


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