International Women's Day: no time to let up on gender parity

8th Mar 21

A year ago, we wrote up the interim findings of the Hampton-Alexander Review (H-AR) into women leaders in British business. We gave two cheers that progress was evident (“progress” meaning companies taking advantage of all human beings with appropriate skills and experience for their most senior decision-making roles, regardless of their biology), but lamented that while 33% of board positions going to women was obviously A Good Thing, only 10.9% of executive directorships in the FTSE 100 were held by women; and 44 of the FTSE 350 had no women exec directors.

The final H-AR report is now out. So for International Women’s Day 2021, let’s see how things have developed as the investigation wraps up. There is more progress! Women now hold 14% of executive directorships in the FTSE 100, and the proportion of board posts held by women is up to 34.3%. ‘One and done’ boards – with just one women director – are down from 39 to 16 in a year.

So two-and-a-half cheers, maybe? As those numbers show, progress is still slow, and despite the past year being all about Covid-19, it would be nice to report that triumphalism in February 2020 about the 33% level being breached had been a dam-bursting moment, rather than a waypoint on the road of steady gains. An extra three percentage points per year on the executive posts means it’ll be 2033 before we get gender parity...

We should be realistic, of course: culture doesn’t change overnight, and in many roles the pipeline of high-potential women remains thin. Although the numbers are improving, data in the final H-AR show that only about a third of new appointments to the layer below the board (made 1st July 2019 to 31st October 2020) went to women. Hmm. And frankly it’s still embarrassing that in the FTSE 100 the finance director (17%) is second only to chief information officer (16%) in terms of poor female representation.

The report’s well-presented and worth a read, whether you like data or narrative. And there are plenty of other good and bad signals from it if you want to find them. (Such as: the sectors of the more gender-diverse boards are pretty broad – it’s no longer true that mining, real estate or biotech can be assumed to be male-dominated.) It’s also admirable frank on the successes:

…and areas for more focus:

But nudging us closest to a conclusive third cheer is a simple line from H-AR chief exec Denise Wilson in her introductory note. “Not only do we talk of the ‘business case’ for gender equality in leadership, but are now unafraid to speak in the same breath, of the moral arguments – and I am proud of that.”

This gets to the heart of the question. You can find umpteen white papers about the improved decision-making capabilities of mixed teams; or the value of cognitive diversity on innovation; or the commercial upside to management that reflects a company’s customer base. Yes, the appointments committee and investors should be worried about the commercial implications of leadership teams that are pale, male and stale - in part because it shows a lack of open minds and get-up-and-go.

But as Wilson says, let's admit it: discrimination is simply wrong, regardless of the bottom line. The structures and cultures that blindly or deliberately create bias against women have to be tackled – not because there’s a Willis Towers Watson paper on improved risk management on diverse boards, but because it’s fundamentally unfair to stop half the population from taking opportunities or making contributions simply because they might bear children. (The gender and culture questions are obviously much more nuanced than that; but maternity is a defining issue here.)

You only have to look at the women finance leaders we’ve been profiling. Starting a family does not turn capable, ambitious women into mummy-brained lightweights. The leaders we’ve interviewed are capable, ambitious and energetic - and in most cases have had to overcome either implicit or explicit bias against them just because of their biological make-up. Eliminating those biases isn't just about boards accessing talent, or companies succeeding; it's about making sure the next generation of women coming through business just don't have to deal with that basic unfairness or unpleasantness.

Millions of humans face conscious or unconscious barriers to achieving their potential simply because they’re women. That’s immoral. The final report of the Hampton-Alexander Review isn’t the end of something, a sign we've won. It's the start of an honest conversation about how we acknowledge those barriers – and tear them down.

PS: there is one irony in the final H-AR report: Sir Philip Hampton gives a shout-out in his introductory letter to KPMG for the firm’s support to the project – the same KPMG whose chairman Bill Michael was removed last month for lambasting the idea of ‘unconscious bias’ training and chiding staff for victimhood.

It’s worth noting, however, that what he actually said was that doing the training itself doesn’t, in his view, change anything. To change things, he blustered, you actually have to care. Is that such a terrible message?

Glancing at the KPMG board and executive leadership team also suggests the firm is years ahead, in gender diversity terms, of most of the companies it audits. Acting chair Bina Mehta and acting senior partner Mary O’Connor (who contributes the sponsor’s message to the H-A final report) are among 12 women on a combined leadership team of 25.

Bill Michael might have been blunt and sceptical about certain kinds of training. But you have to say that succession planning and leadership development for women on his watch – he was appointed chair in 2017 – looks to have been pretty good...