International Women's Day 2016: Government nagging hasn't worked - so businesses must take responsibility for helping women to climb the career ladder themselves

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Women can't be allowed to fall behind (Source: Getty)

Another International Women’s Day, another opport­unity for the usual merry-go-round of politicians and academics to lecture businesses on gender diversity.

By now, the complaints are well-rehearsed. Women earn 24 per cent less than their male counterparts. At a senior level, they make up only 14 per cent of senior executive roles. On the FTSE 100, they make up just five per cent of chief executives.

And yet research shows that businesses with women in senior roles tend to be better run, more successful and better at finding and keeping talent. So what is causing businesses to shy away from hiring women to senior roles?

The “old boys’ club” argument is dredged up every time as an explanation for the paucity of women at the top, but it is likely the real reason is more nuanced. Oft-cited research suggests men and women are neck-and-neck in the promotions and earnings stakes in their 20s.

A report published last year showed women typically earned over £1,000 more than their male counterparts between the ages of 22 and 29 – but by the time they hit their 30s, men jumped ahead, with men aged between 30 and 37 making an extra £8,779.

Read more: Female traders' bonuses half that of their male counterparts

The reason behind it is now familiar to most of us: with women still taking the lion’s share of the childcare responsibilities, they take a career break in their 30s – and begin to fall behind male counterparts.

We know that government nagging – including its latest wizard wheeze, forcing firms to publish average pay data – is rarely effective. The Davies review may have successfully bolstered the number of female non-execs, but this was low-hanging fruit; significantly increasing the number of execs and senior managers is far more tricky.

With the government’s latest measures looking like box-ticking exercises, it is down to companies to find a way to make diverse senior teams work. They cannot reverse social norms, let alone biological facts. But they can do what business does best – identifying specific problems and enforcing quick and innovative solutions.

Companies, large and small, should identify where the bottlenecks lie among their own staff, and show women with leadership potential a route to climbing the next rung on the career ladder. Otherwise they, and the wider economy, will forever miss out on a vast pool of talent.

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