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The great gender debate



Diversity may not be solely an HR issue but HR departments certainly have a role to play and can make a significant difference when convincing boards that there should be more women at the top. Lucie Benson reports.

The gender diversity debate is certainly a huge topic and one that will usually create in-depth discussions on equality rights, but the reality is that women make up around half of the workforce yet still don’t seem to be equally represented at the top of organisations.

According to research conducted by the Cranfield School of Management last year – The Female FTSE Report 2007 – one in four FTSE100 boards still have no women and only 11 companies have female executive directors. At the time of the report, deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman MP said that “having balanced boards is good for business as they will better reflect – and therefore be better able to serve – their customers and employees and therefore their shareholders”.

It seems to be a bit of a catch 22 situation, says Ruth Sealey, researcher at the Cranfield School of Management and co-author of its 2007 report.

“The lack of women at the top at present is discouraging women from going for these positions,” she explains. “So we need to get more women up there in order to encourage more women to stay at the top, as well as go for more senior management roles.”

“So many organisations have no idea what their demographics are, when they are losing the women and why – so that has to be the first step for any company.”

Ruth Sealey, Cranfield School of Management

Reflect the shareholders

David Chernick, head of commercial development at Reed Screening, remarks that it is a shame that more businesses don’t make more efforts to reflect their customer, employee and shareholder profiles within senior management.

“The FTSE100 companies happily cater for women’s banking needs, flights, cigarette addictions, heating, TV, petrol and shopping; and their ownership includes the usual funds, invested in by women’s pensions and savings,” he says. “I bet they would communicate better if their management teams reflected their stakeholders.”

So how can HR get involved with successful diversity initiatives to ensure a more gender-balanced board? Sealey says that it depends on the organisation and its culture.

“There is no point, for example, in an external consultant coming in to an organisation and telling them what to do, because if the organisational culture is not ready for it, then they have got to go back to step one and assess the culture and the situation for what it is.

“So many organisations have no idea what their demographics are, when they are losing the women and why – so that has to be the first step for any company.”

Sealey adds that only once you have got that information, can you then start to look at those levels of awareness training, right through to the most progressive companies, in terms of diversity, that are leading from the top and taking women on at board level.

“These organisations are doing things like making individual managers accountable for the diversity of their teams and their succession planning. So often, with culture change, you can have people at the top telling you what to do, and you can have people at the bottom wanting it to happen, but the middle managers don’t take it on board.”

Sealey also emphasises that the most important thing is for HR to ensure that initiatives are relevant to the organisation and that the policies and practices are going to work.

“It is too easy for HR to create paper policies, for instance a flexible working policy, if individuals within the organisation consider that if you take a flexible working approach, it signals a lack of commitment. Nobody is then going to take it up, so there is no point in having the policy. So it is more about working on the organisation’s culture.”

The problem with HR’s tactical deployment of diversity practices and policies, says Chernick, is that many boards regard them, at best, as legislative compliance. “If HR is serious about strategy, it needs to embrace and affect the vision and goals of the business,” he says. “This means more effort and time in the business, learning about its market, challenges, and opportunities. Armed with this insight, it can begin to convince boards that they must reflect businesses’ stakeholders in its own make-up.”

Chernick adds: “If HR continues a tactical approach, many boards will continue to ‘appear’ to seriously consider diversity strategies, but they won’t widely extol the advantages of diversity amongst their management teams.”

Is there really a problem?

It is true that there is still some way to go to ensure a more equally balanced board in organisations, yet, on the other hand, training manager Nik Kellingley remarks that he is not sure there is actually a problem with having too few women at board level.

“Research suggests that a large chunk of women who attain board level do so by emulating the men already there,” he comments. “If this is the case, then it’s unlikely that ‘diversity’ is actually occurring at all; and equally women are probably not adding anything unique to the boards already in place.”

“If HR continues a tactical approach, many boards will continue to ‘appear’ to seriously consider diversity strategies, but they won’t widely extol the advantages of diversity amongst their management teams.”

David Chernick, Reed Screening

He adds, however, that there is a need for an underlying review of the concept of the board, as the ultimate strategic management tool. “There is also a need for a review of the way that the decision-making process of this slightly archaic institution occurs.

“If an adapted methodology was then brought to bear, it is highly likely that a diversity of inputs could only improve the usefulness of the board. But as it stands, I don’t believe that ‘diversity’ on the board adds to the bottom line or brings any substantive business benefit.”

Chernick points out that the fact that HR is a more female occupied profession than, for instance, accountancy or law, may make the diversity debate more acute. “It’s hardly surprising that when [HR] talk amongst ourselves, we often wallow in an introverted grumble about the lack of boardroom female representation. And we regularly wheel out the usual, yet relatively few, examples of senior women relying on repetitive eulogies and ‘how I made it’ war stories.”

He adds, however, that in the short term, it is vital to include management competencies in selection criteria for general staff, as part of a wider talent management and succession planning strategy. “That way, management teams won’t be limiting themselves to the usual high flyers,” he says.

So perhaps diversity itself should be addressed as a management competency – this view is certainly supported by Shelley Collins, training director of Just Resources, a training consultancy specialising in diversity and management training programmes.

“We present diversity as a management issue and it is therefore one of the management competencies we expect to be annually assessed – taken seriously like any other required management competence,” she says. “They are the ones who have to discover and then articulate the business case. Only then will the staff be able to get on board – rather than play the ‘PC’ game.”

See also:
Legislation needed to close gender pay gap

Reasons for a more gender-balanced management team

Corporate governance – more diverse boards have better governance.

Market capitalisation – companies with the largest capitalisation tend to have more women at the top of the organisation.

External marketing – the board should be able to reflect the competition of their marketplace.

Workforce demographics – there is going to be a massive shortage of white men in their 50s soon, so organisations need to take account of the whole of the talent pool and not just 50% of it.

Employer branding – organisations are focusing on this at the moment, in order to attract and retain the best people, and women don’t like to go to work for organisations where they can’t see evidence of women succeeding at the top.

Brain drain – women are choosing to take their knowledge and intellectual capital elsewhere because they don’t like what they see at the top of the organisation, which is clearly not good for the business.

Innovation and decision-making processes – there is ample research showing that homogenous groups aren’t good for innovation or good decision-making.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) – any organisation that is scoring points on CSR will get improved stakeholder relations, which improves the bottom line.

Source: Ruth Sealey, Cranfield School of Management

One Response

  1. Two way street
    Great. Now can we please have an equally balanced article on why we need more men in HR? HR persons cant really convince boards there should be more women until they address their own departmental gender imbalances.

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