The gender agenda has been the subject of much debate ever since the Lord Davies review in 2010, which called for greater representation of woman at Board level. But while women now make up 26.1% (up from 12.5% in 2011) of UK Plc boards, the number of women occupying the top jobs in the recruitment sector still has some way to go.
Indeed, despite the fact that women represent 56% of all senior positions within the recruitment industry, 3 out 4 (77%) of board level roles are held by men.
So why the disparity, particularly when the talent base is evident to see?
In a study commissioned by Women in Recruitment and conducted by Westminster Business School, women were found to be statistically better at billing, yet they leave the industry before moving into senior positions. The research found that:
- There is a lack of female role models: Only 27% of respondents said they had a female role model in the workplace. This ironically correlates with the main point of the survey – if women aren’t getting promoted, how can there be role models for younger or less experienced colleagues to seek to emulate?
- The sector still retails an ‘old boys club’ culture: 41% of respondents stated that the existence of an ‘old boys ethos’ is detrimentally affecting their career prospects, with Boards overwhelmingly made up of men. The research authors said: “While there are good places, there are still pockets of unconstructed male chauvinism”. This can obviously be incredibly alienating to women within the industry who may feel left out or discriminated against, leading to diminished trust in employers and limited career opportunities.
- Family commitments are a key concern: The greatest reason prohibiting further career progression was, according to 66% of respondents, due to family and caring responsibilities. Women often report that taking a career break to raise their children makes it difficult for them when they return to the workplace, with a lack of support on offer by their employers at a level they need to resume what is a high pressured and competitive environment within the recruitment sector.
Evidently there are challenges to be faced, as the above research has demonstrated. Against this backdrop the question now becomes one of What can be done to tackle them?
There is a wealth of evidence that shows quite categorically the significant business benefits to be gained by having a diverse workforce. In 2013 Harvard Business Review reported that
those Fortune-500 companies with the highest female representation at senior level outperformed those with the fewest by 42%.
And in 2015, a report by accountancy firm Grant Thornton showed that publicly listed companies with male-only boards missed out on a £49bn of investment pot each year – the equivalent of around 3% GDP.
So providing an environment where women can realise their career ambition is not only right and fair practice, it makes good business sense too – positively impacting on the organisation’s bottom line.
Our managing director, Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, recently interviewed the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Nicholas Carter. He asked him about the British Army’s current recruitment practices – specifically that which related to increasing the number of females of all ranks within the UK Armed Forces. Sir Nicholas said:
“There needs to be an absolute understanding that the demography of our country has changed.
“It is also about women. It’s not good enough that we don’t draw talent from 51% of the population in the numbers that we should do. Ultimately, it’s about maximising all of that opportunity. But that means that we also have to change our culture, because we have to be an inclusive organisation.”
With more female employees, there should be more women getting promoted, leading to more and more role models for new recruits to look up to. Indeed, as research by the University of Toronto has shown, women more than men are inspired when they see same-sex role models succeeding in business. This advice should be taken seriously – 66% of respondents in the Women in Recruitment report said that having good mentors would improve staff retention.
Engage, support, advance
Steps should also be taken to include women in company conversations – communication is key, and ‘old boys clubs’ are such an archaic concept that it’s unsurprising so many industry professionals are finding them problematic. Family commitments will undoubtedly be the most difficult issue to tackle. However, employers should emphasise that the company is always there to listen to any worries they may have if employers have the capacity to utilise flexible working opportunities, they should seriously consider it – 63% of respondents believe it would actively encourage women to stay in the profession.
Cross sector challenge
Of course, the challenge of increasing gender representation at senior level is not the reserve of the recruitment industry. A recent NHS Employers report showed that 77% of those working in the health service are women. Similarly, figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request to the Office of National Statistics showed that 67% of the UK’s 5m public sector employees are female, yet the majority of senior roles within the NHS and the public sector as a whole remain in the hands of their male counterparts.
With five female CEO’s in the FTSE100 the UK edges ahead of the US, France and Germany and is second only to Sweden (which has 7 female CEOs) in the Global Index Ranking when it comes to the proportion of female chief executives at listed companies. While the gap is narrowing, albeit it at a slightly slower pace than many of us would like, there is still some way to go.
Overall, companies should ensure that diversity and inclusivity are paramount to their work ethic. In doing so, more opportunities will be created and the entire work process would be more prosperous.
We need to recognise that there are some boards that remain rooted to the old ways of deciding who would make an ideal board member. Or as the Cranfield School of Management report, Gender Diversity on Boards: The Appointment Process and the Role of Executive Search Firms, put it: “The Board appointment process remains opaque and subjective, and typically driven by a corporate elite…who tend to favour those with similar characteristics to themselves.”
It’s a work in progress, but those organisations that do take a leap of faith are the ones who continue to stay ahead of the curve.