It’s no secret that the gender imbalance in the corporate world has presented challenges for businesses of all sizes for a long time now. But there is a general consensus that having more women at work makes absolute business sense. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any research that suggests otherwise.

A simple search on the why gender balance is beneficial to organisations will throw up an array of research that indicates numerous arguments for more women in work. As a general overview the top reasons cited for better female representation is listed below (though I’m sure most of the HR community has this list to hand already, including much of the supporting statistics as we all continue to drive diversity initiatives in our companies):

There’s no doubt, in my mind at least, that the business case for gender equality is strong, and the discussions across the corporate world on this topic in recent years suggests I’m not alone in this view. But how far have we come in actually achieving this?

Tracking diversity trends

Inclusive workforces benefit everyone and as the trade body for professional staffing companies, APSCo is committed to driving equality and high standards in a sector that so strongly supports the creation of workforces worldwide. It’s our view that the recruitment profession should lead by example and set the tone for those businesses it sources talent for. Consequently, the staffing arena should itself be diverse. With that in mind we’ve been tracking trends in the makeup of the staffing workforce – and what we’ve found is certainly interesting.

APSCo has supported the Women in Recruitment initiative (designed to support female professionals further their careers in the hiring landscape) and its recent benchmarking report showed some encouraging signs, with a slight increase in female representation.

However, to really ascertain the impact that the variety of diversity initiatives being driven across business have had, we need to look at much more historical data. If we compare where we are today with the gender imbalance five years ago, while changes are happening, there’s certainly room for continued improvement.

A shift in the last five years

The 2015 Women in Recruitment survey, for example, clearly indicated that recruitment is heavily male dominated, mostly because there was a general feeling that the workplace wasn’t as geared towards females. In particular, a lack of flexibility was creating a challenge. Encouragingly, we can see from the 2020 statistics that some steps have been made to address this, with over 80% of recruitment firms revealing they now offer some form of flexible working arrangements, whether that’s remote working, part-time and flexible hours, or job shares.

The impact that this increased flexibility of working has had on the gender balance is certainly notable. The 2020 survey revealed that well over two thirds of recruitment businesses (70%) have more than 50% female representation at support staff level and two-fifths have more than 50% at recruitment or resourcer level.

However, the challenge appears to have shifted from getting more women into recruitment to keeping them. When we look at more senior roles, female representation drops to just under a third (29%) for leadership teams and just over a quarter (26%) for board level.

It’s no secret that this senior level imbalance is being noted across almost every sector and the debate surrounding women at board level rages on. But, the steps to achieve this may be simple. When we look at the data from the Women In Recruitment 2020 survey, for example, just 26% of respondents have an initiative aimed at retaining female staff in their company.

It’s clear that the hard work that’s gone into attracting more women into employment is paying off, but businesses are simply setting themselves up for failure if they don’t provide progression opportunities to retain them, and that to me is the key focus that we should all be investing in for the future.