Choose to Challenge

With progress on improving female representation in leadership still painfully slow, we need bold steps and a systemic business-led approach to create change.

Who run the world? Girls.

Or do they? Despite Beyoncé’s immortal words, in practical terms, our present reality still finds us with a long way to go to reach true equality.

With International Women’s Day filling social media with stories of female empowerment, it is impossible to ignore the irony of the tabloid representation of Meghan Markle being torn down running in tandem. Whatever your views, opinions around female representation, whether in media or the workplace, are rarely without controversy and gender equality of the boardroom is particularly contentious.

There seems to be a positive shift in the tide when it comes to female representation in business. The annual Hampton-Alexander review found that 33% of board positions at FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies were held by women at the end of 2020. The review explained this was a rise of 50% in five years, showing what appears to be dramatic progress in representation and gender equality.

However, despite these improvements progress remains slow with few women actually in the driving seat: there are only 17 female CEOs across all 350 companies which breeds a feeling of ‘one and done’ among businesses. These figures sit uncomfortably when looking at the population breakdown, with 50.61% female, coupled with multifarious evidence that a company’s chance of success is increased when it taps into female potential. In just one recent example, BioNTech co-founder Özlem Türeci has praised its workforce of over 50% female employees for the speed at which a viable COVID-19 vaccine was found.

When asked about the review findings, Fiona Harris, Chair of Quill PR, said ‘Whilst it is of course encouraging to see more women on boards, we are far from the point where this is seen as normal rather than “novelty”.

‘Boards are there to nurture their business and look after the interests of their employees and investors, all of which plays well to female strengths,’ she continued. ‘The most effective boards comprise a diverse range of experience and skill sets which can all add value to the whole in their own unique way. We should be on boards because we bring valuable experience, expertise and ideas to the table, not merely because we are a quota.’

The issue of ‘quotas’ are hotly contested and more prevalent than ever in the wake of 2020, Black Lives Matter and the growing pressure for inclusion and diversity in the workplace.

So how can we encourage greater progress? Sasha Scott, CEO & Founder of Inclusive Group, states ‘Whilst the recent improvement in gender representation at board level is positive, it’s not desperately encouraging as progress is still painfully slow. Covid has been awful for everyone and working mothers have been exceptionally adversely affected, so there needs to be a laser focused approach in 2021 on diversity and inclusion.

‘We need to strive for parity. The most important steps for change are motivation and stakeholder sponsorship and mentoring. The Board needs to see this as a strategic imperative - not a “nice to have”. Allyship needs to be fully embraced and acted upon.

‘Finally, do people in business really understand the difference between equality and equity?’ she asks. ‘Although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need. We now need bold steps and a systemic business-led approach to all representation and intersection to make changes. The time for complacency has passed.’

Undoubtedly, momentum is increasing with gender pay gap reporting and companies taking responsibility to improve their diversity figures. Whatever your role or business prerogative, it seems we all need to embrace the #ChooseToChallenge mind-set to ensure true representation for women. Diversity, after all, is just good business and if Beyoncé’s Grammy success this year, becoming the most awarded woman in history is anything to go by, girls really do run the world.