Public bodies must lead the way in promoting women

Boardroom quotas imposed by the Government could give women a chance to change the industry for the better.

We are a predominantly young industry and over 60 per cent female, but when you get to the top, only 13 per cent can be found in the boardroom. So we are account executives, account managers and make it successfully to account directors, and then the fall starts – it is embarrassing.

That is in part why we are here – in a man-free PRWeek. It’s a pretty radical move. I like radical though. I like leaps. I like changes to be swift, allowing for more to benefit as quickly as possible from life’s prizes.

The challenge is to ensure it sticks. One-offs are great – they make a statement, create some noise and show how different we can be – but, just for one month, we need to make the change last and we need to make the change swifter than our current glacial pace.

So what do we need to do to stop losing our great women, and not just from our industry but across all industries, because this is firmly a societal problem?

Here’s my proposal (and that of many before me). Guarantee affordable childcare for every woman who wishes to return to work. Guarantee that jobs will remain open for one year, at the same level, without employers being able to fudge or prevaricate. Set the ambition that half of boardroom-level roles are taken by women – the Government has a corporate target of 30 per cent by 2020, and so far has resisted mandatory quotas.

But public bodies must lead, and this includes the Cabinet. International evidence on investing to make change is persuasive in showing how to make change quicker. According to the latest Catalyst global census of women on boards, Norway has the highest levels at 35.5 per cent, followed by its Nordic neighbour Finland at 29.9 per cent and our neighbour France at 29.7 per cent. All of them have legislated quotas for women.

The UK is at 22.8 per cent, similar to the US, although there has been a significant leap since 2011. The benefits of having women in senior roles are gradually being recognised, and if there were more tools to support this, as outlined above, we could get where we need to be, at the pace we need to go.

But we need more than just government interventions: our attitude to women in work must shift. A National Childbirth Trust survey found that 31 per cent of mothers felt that the relationship with their boss had deteriorated since becoming pregnant and returning to work, and 32 per cent felt that their promotional prospects had been reduced. An O2 report from earlier this year reveals that one woman in five feels their gender stops them from reaching senior positions.

Intervention may not be where the Government wants to go but it looks like it is working for women outside the UK.

Cultural shifts may take longer, but with government leadership quotas we are more likely to achieve sustainable change, with more women in senior roles and the boardroom, as a permanent feature of our industry and the UK-wide business landscape.

Helen Munro is MD of The Whitehouse Consultancy

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