Creating sustainable change is a marathon not a sprint

The latest report from Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders – the 2013 Female FTSE report – showed good progress in the rate of board appointments, but there is still work to be done, and it is important not to get complacent.

In the first six months since Cranfield’s last report (March 2012), the pace of change was extremely encouraging with 44% of new FTSE 100 board appointments going to women and 36% of FTSE 250 companies. However, those high levels were short-lived and over the past six months they have dropped to 26% and 29% respectively, showing a considerable gap from the 33% required to reach Lord Davies’ recommendation of 25% women on boards by 2015. The target can still be met, but only if female appointments pick up promptly. The figures should be a real wake-up call to companies who feel they have done enough to make their boardrooms more representative, and more powerfully, serve as a timely reminder to business that quotas are still a real possibility if the pace of change does not accelerate.

The arguments behind female representation on boards have received plenty of airtime, and rightly so, but the debate should keep moving on. Developing the pipeline of female executives is the real key to sustainable change, and it is no secret that the executive pipeline in the UK remains a challenge. There are, after all, only 3 female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies (Angela Ahrendts at Burberry, Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco and Carolyn McCall at easyjet). Focusing attention on the pipeline is critically important, and the 30% Club is redoubling its efforts in this area. While we recognise that it takes years to develop senior talent, the data suggests the UK going backwards and this is concerning.

Our initial project with professional services firms highlighted many cultural issues which those firms are now working on intensively to solve. The more recently-established 30% Club corporate pipeline group is looking into behavioural differences between men and women to more accurately identify reasons why women leave or are not promoted. This is a complex sociological problem and one that needs patience and intensive collaborative effort to solve

Granted, change will not happen overnight, but creating a better gender balance at all levels of a company, across regions, across industries, requires a business-led, sustained and concerted series of efforts. It is not just up to the Chairmen and to HR and Diversity specialists to promote female talent. Frontline executives in the middle are slowly seeing this as a key part of what it takes to deliver successful results in the future.