For the first time, women now hold most non-executive director roles in the UK’s top companies. This is heartening news, but it’s not enough. We need more female executive directors – the doers – with a seat at the table as well as a better pipeline for young talent to get there.
The demonstrable increase of women in corporate boardrooms is reassuring. Non-execs provide independent oversight and strategic direction. They monitor performance and ensure a company meets its Equality, diversity and inclusion objectives. It would naturally follow that the more women there are in non-executive roles, the more focus there will be on promoting gender equality.
But the evidence has been less promising. While the number of non-executive directors may have shot up this year, the proportion of female executive directors was unchanged from the previous year, at 14 per cent. Indeed, there are only five more female chief executives at the top 150 FSTE companies than there were over a decade ago – totalling 12. Take a moment for that figure to sink in. There are more CEOs running top UK firms named Peter, than female CEOs.
Headline figures shouldn’t distract us from the uncomfortable reality. While it’s important to recognise and celebrate significant milestones like this one, we can’t be complacent.
Implementing a top-down approach is a good thing. It can act as a motivator to the executive layer below and helps to instil a culture of female empowerment. But alone it is not enough; it must be met with a robust bottom-up structure. Multiple studies show young women are starting their careers better educated than their male counterparts. But what then happens is that the number of senior women drops off a cliff. This needs to be addressed.
It’s what we call the middle-layer permafrost. We need to do more to ensure there is a steady pipeline of female talent penetrating the middle-management barrier. So many women’s career trajectories stall at the point at which they start a family. In the Real Estate Balance’s September 2020 survey, managing family and career was cited as the biggest challenge to gender diversity by employees. Significant numbers of female respondents said they felt unable to talk to line managers about wanting to have children.
This isn’t just a moral issue, as gender equality creates a dynamic workplace with a broader collection of backgrounds and viewpoints, resulting in more well-rounded decision-making. Creating equal opportunities for men and women to collaborate on decisions also leads to diminished risk-taking, less aggressive strategies and improved workplace satisfaction. These are all essential ingredients to run successful companies.
I’m not a chief executive; I’m an asset manager in the real estate sector. While I’m surrounded by brilliant women, my sector, like many others, has a long way to go. That’s why I launched an initiative called Mentoring Circle to bring together senior women across the property industry for one-to-one mentoring with newly qualified female professionals. We target mentees with a maximum of five years post-qualification experience, who are ambitious and engaged but who often depend on the quality of their line manager for their career success. Having access to external mentoring provides an inspirational platform for our mentees.
While it’s been a rollercoaster of a year for all of us, running this programme has been the glue that holds me together. It’s reminded me of the talent that’s out there and the future potential for businesses. Ignoring this talent pool is a risk that employers cannot afford to take.