As another International Women’s Day passes, it’s encouraging to note that at least some progress has been made in increasing the representation of women at board level.  Two years ago, when Lord Davies published his report on Women on Boards, he recommended FTSE 100 companies should aim for a minimum of 25 per cent female representation by 2015.  Latest figures show that women now hold 17.3 per cent of board positions in these companies – up from 12.5 per cent in 2011. 

There is, however, still a long way to go – not just to increase women’s involvement at the most senior levels but also to ensure that the talented women currently sitting in junior and middle management roles have the opportunity to progress their careers.Research suggests that accelerating women’s progress in organisations isn’t as high on the agenda as some of the hype might suggest. In the 2011 Mercer Women’s Leadership Development survey, 71 per cent of HR people said their organisation did not have a clearly defined strategy or philosophy for developing women for leadership roles.


The business case for exploiting female talent is powerful.  A recent report from Ernst and Young shows that women are the next emerging market in the world and that over the next decade they will wield enormous influence over politics, business and society. (Women: The next emerging market  So what can organisations do to create a more positive environment for women and remove the barriers that stand in the way of progress?


1.     Turn policies into practice

HR people need to take a leading role in driving diversity initiatives forward and ensuring they are implemented enthusiastically by the business.  It’s a sad reality that while many organisations have good intentions and excellent policies in this area, they are often not being translated into practice on the front-line.   HR needs to be proactive in identifying the specific barriers in the business that are holding women back and developing practices that will allow them to fulfil their potential.  They need to ensure their initiatives have support at the highest level and to get better at providing the hard evidence that shows how a focus on diversity can have a real impact on the bottom line.


2.     Challenge stereotypes

Outdated stereotypes are still widespread within corporate life.  Organisations need to make sure they are challenging these stereotypes and not allowing them to hold women back.  HR need to think about whether they are advertising technical or other typically male dominated roles in a way that encourages women to apply.  They need to make sure they are not making assumptions about potential female candidates –  i.e. this role calls for extensive travel so a woman with young children won’t be interested.  Organisations also need to make sure they have a broad view of leadership and are not expecting women leaders to behave like their male counterparts. 


3.     Provide the right support

It’s important to make sure that women – particularly those in the early stages of their career – have access to the assignments and experience that will make a real difference to their CV.  It’s about creating development opportunities that women can learn from – such as secondments, interim assignments or the opportunity to take part in big projects – as well as providing mentors who can provide on-going support and guidance.  Organisations also need to think carefully about whether they are providing role models who can help inspire women to reach higher and make the most of their capabilities.  In a recent Ernst & Young survey, three out of four women questioned said they have few or no female role models within their organisation.  The best role models are those who are able to talk honestly and openly about their journey and their challenges, as opposed to ‘superwomen’ with 24/7 working lives that most women simply don’t aspire to.


4.    Find new ways of working

There is still a long way to go before the majority of organisations fully embrace flexible working.  An overly bureaucratic approach tends to get in the way of progress towards truly family friendly environments and there is often a culture around what is ‘not permitted’ rather than an open dialogue.  HR need to look at the way jobs are being designed and to find new ways of organising work that meet business needs while at the same time respond to the growing desire among employees for a sensible work-life balance.  They also need to widen understanding of the broad range of flexible working options available and make sure there is visible commitment from the top for making their family friendly initiatives work.


5.    Engage line managers

Line managers – of both sexes – are often unwittingly one of the biggest barriers to women’s progression in organisations.  Often, this is because the organisation hasn’t been explicit about the role it wants them to play in developing female talent.  They need to get a clear message from above that the organisation sees nurturing the next generation of female leaders as a key part of their role.  In many cases, line managers need practical support and skills development to help them do this.  They often shy away from having what they perceive may be ‘difficult’ conversations with female employees about returning to work, for example, and need help to understand how flexible working can bring real benefits to their team.


Fiona Dent is co-author with Viki Holton of the book ‘Women in Business: Navigating Career Success’.