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Joanna Knight

the Berkshire Consultancy


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Six suggestions for boosting how many women sit on the board


Although women make up 51% of the UK population and just under half of the workforce, only 19% of senior management and 9.6% of executive director positions are held by females.  

So it’s clear that the higher up the management hierarchy you go, the fewer women that there are. Is the same true of your business? And if so, what can you do to try and shift the balance?
1. Come up with a compelling business case
The first thing to do is devise a business case for boosting the number of females at management level, especially in today’s challenging economic times when it may be seen as a non-essential issue. 
But research entitled ‘Women Matter’, which was based on a survey of almost 800 business leaders by McKinsey & Co, shows that a diverse board make-up provides for better governance, and that organisations led by such boards perform better. 
Being seen as a truly representative employer is also important in creating a positive brand for the business and in understanding your customer base.
But there may also be other benefits to going down this route such as an enhanced ability to attract and retain the best talent as well as more effective employee engagement and, therefore productivity, among female workers.
What’s important, however, is that you do your own research in order to identify and scope the potential gains for your business in terms of improved performance.
2. Adopt a broad-based approach
Most companies rely on one factor to boost female representation – flexible working. But McKinsey’s study demonstrates that the higher the priority given to gender diversity, the broader the range of measures that are used to achieve it.
But such measures need to go beyond the usual female-friendly policies, which tend to have a limited effect if not assisted by proactive working practices and positive management attitudes. 
Development programmes to help women move into more senior positions likewise won’t be fully effective unless the prevailing culture supports such activity.
Another danger is that, if the outcomes of new policies, practices and development initiatives aren’t tracked and measured, they may well run out of steam. So an integrated and comprehensive approach to the issue is vital to success.
3. Find a suitable sponsor
As when introducing any organisational change, it is important that the appropriate high level sponsorship is in place. Boosting the number of women managers must be thought of as a business rather than an HR initiative in order to attract widespread support.
This means that, even if it is something that you feel passionate about and are keen to lead on, ensure that you engage senior leaders to actively sponsor it.
Also don’t just focus on the few women who are likely to be operating at an appropriate level of seniority to act as sponsors as such a move can risk marginalising both the initiative and them.
Instead it may be worth approaching men in dual career families who are likely to have a good understanding of the issues, challenges and business benefits – also bear in mind that unexpected sponsors typically have a greater impact.
It is even better if your sponsor is someone known for being results-focused as their involvement will help to underline the relationship between female representation and business performance.
What is most critical of all, however, is that those doing the leading and sponsoring are willing to be visible and active champions.
4. Define a base line against which to measure progress
Define a suitable base line against which to measure progress and success. For example, start by identifying the percentage of women that you currently employ in different functions and geographies and at what level. Also:
  • Review any gender-based discrepancies in pay among people holding similar positions
  • Evaluate staff turnover statistics to see if disproportionate numbers of women are leaving and why
  • Explore promotion processes to assess whether women are given a fair chance
  • Compare engagement levels between male and female employees. 
But it’s also worth complementing statistical data with qualitative research through focus groups and one-to-one interviews in order to build up a rounded picture of what is going on and prioritise areas that require attention and action.
Your plan should likewise include metrics in order to measure progress towards your goals as well as clearly defined success criteria. 
The metrics should also be based on a mix of quantitative and qualitative data, not least because inspiring personal stories often have more of an impact when trying to drum up support for change than any amount of statistical evidence. 
Regular progress updates are just as important, however, in order to keep the issue on the business agenda and maintain momentum for continuing change and improvement.   
5. Ensure that HR policies and processes support gender goals
HR policies and processes must provide a supportive framework to ensure that recruitment, performance reviews as well as talent identification and promotion systems enable women, as well as men, to progress in line with their aspirations and potential. 
Such activity includes:
  • Making recruitment campaigns attractive to female candidates
  • Ensuring that shortlists for management roles, particularly senior ones, contain women, and that promotion panels work with objective criteria
  • Implementing flexible working arrangements such as flexi-time, part-time work and annualised hours
  • Introducing a performance review process that focuses on the outputs achieved rather than simply inputs and includes a discussion of aspirations and any barriers to progress
  • Providing support during maternity leave or career breaks to help female staff stay connected with the company. 
But HR’s role also extends beyond policies and processes to ensure that the prevailing culture is female- as well as male-friendly.
As most people’s understanding of HR policies is based on their experience with their immediate line manager, it is important that unhelpful management attitudes, styles and behaviours are identified and addressed. 
Both employee engagement surveys that are detailed enough to provide scores for individual managers as well as 360 degree feedback processes can help to identify good or poor managerial performance and ensure that appropriate action is taken.
6. Offer women-only development programmes
Otherwise ambitious women often need help in building up enough confidence and political acumen to navigate a predominantly male management environment successfully.   
Female-only development programmes are an effective way of achieving this as women feel freer to discuss their particular challenges and concerns and to build relevant skills in a supportive and safe environment. 
But it can also be useful to complement these programmes by offering both internal and external coaching and mentoring support so that they can gain access to positive role models and develop a clearer understanding of how to operate at management and leadership level. 
Senior men can likewise benefit from undertaking such mentoring as the experience can help them become more aware of the challenges that women face and learn how best to support them.
What can also help, however, is to give women, especially those with responsibility for profit and loss accounts, stretching assignments in parallel with their development programme. The aim here is provide them with the necessary breadth of business experience to help them succeed at more senior levels.
But female-only development programmes are also useful in that they aid in the formation of professional networks, which often continue to be a source of support, and challenge, beyond the life of the programme.
However, in the broader scheme of things, it is important to publicise success stories as they often serve to inspire other women and enable them to see how they might align their personal values and strengths with those of other business leaders.
This approach should help in building up a talent pipeline at different levels of the organisation in order to ensure that improved representation is sustainable.
In summary, HR has a vital role to play in boosting the number of woman at management and leadership level. But key to success will be your ability to gain top level sponsorship as well as design and deliver a strategy that is both broad-based and integrated.

Joanna Knight is director of management consultancy, the Berkshire Consultancy.

2 Responses

  1. Opportunities and board skills

    Hi Joanna

    These are interesting suggestions and of course, all of these will go some way to get more women to board level. 

    I would like to add that:

    • Unless there is a transparent and unbiased way of allocating new projects, opportunties and clients, those opportunities will tend to go to the people who are part of the in-crowd, the well-established (predominantly male) network.    The Board needs to ensure that advertising opportunities to everyone in the organisation (who are qualified of course) is a priority.  Women will then be in a position to bid for those opportunities – rather than not even be considered.
    • Our work with assessing board skills indicates that having a balance of women and men is a positive thing, but focusing primarily on gender can take attention off the skills that the whole board needs to be effective, both at an individual and a group level.



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