The number of women at the top level of UK companies is increasing, but only at a snail's pace – and a new report reveals why progress is so slow, highlighting the archaic attitudes that women are still up against in the workplace.
The government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review, on the gender balance at the top of FTSE 350 companies, has exposed the most commonly used reasons for not hiring women – and the findings would be comical if they weren't so bleak.
The excuses (listed below in full) were provided by a range of FTSE 350 chairs and CEOs and described as "shocking" by the review authors and "pitiful and patronising" by business minister Andrew Griffiths.
Meanwhile, Amanda Mackenzie, the chief executive of Business in the Community, said they better reflected the social mores of 1918, not 2018. "It reads like a script from a comedy parody but it’s true... Maybe those that give credence to these excuses are the ones that are not up to sitting on boards and should move over: we are in the 21st century after all."
The number of all-male FTSE 350 company boards has fallen dramatically in recent years, from 152 in 2011 to 10 in 2017, but there's still a long way to go to meet the government's target of having women comprise at least a third of boards at the UK's FTSE 350 by 2020.
The 10 most common excuses for not appointing women
"I don't think women fit comfortably into the board environment"
"There aren't that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board - the issues covered are extremely complex"
"Most women don't want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board"
"Shareholders just aren't interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we be?"
"My other board colleagues wouldn't want to appoint a woman on our board"
"All the 'good' women have already been snapped up"
"We have one woman already on the board, so we are done - it is someone else's turn"
"There aren't any vacancies at the moment - if there were I would think about appointing a woman"
"We need to build the pipeline from the bottom - there just aren't enough senior women in this sector"
"I can't just appoint a woman because I want to"
What female bosses had to say
Reading about this report has to be one of the most depressing ways to start my day. The excuses are lazy, outdated and, to be honest, funny in part. They seem to be code. 'I don't think women fit comfortably into the board environment' translates to 'we're chauvinists who make inappropriate gender-related comments'.
'All the 'good' women have already been snapped up,' translates to 'I've heard about a woman being appointed to another board, she's the only woman I've heard of because of the article I read, and I can't be bothered to see whether there are any other women who have a skill set I could use, and I only trust people who look like me.'
As women, we've all been in situations where we've faced discrimination, and the rationale for not being 'in the room' has been at best weak, at worst, overtly discriminatory. We've also been in situations where we haven't been invited to something because 'we didn't think you would want to come now you're a mother', or where challenging a decision has led to us being termed 'emotional' or 'too sensitive'. It's these attitudes that not only prevent women having a seat at the table, but just as seriously, impact women's decision to stay in industries where they have worked tirelessly, and for businesses to suffer as a result, haemorrhaging talent which they've invested in. When you apply that type of logic, it makes no sense, because it's actually costing businesses and the economy money.
To combat the problem, we need quotas at executive level. I never used to believe in them, but as my career has progressed, as I've seen talent leave and I've seen reports prove that businesses with women at senior levels outperform than those without, it's not just about fair representation, it's about economics. We know it's going to take over 200 years to reach gender parity in the UK, which means none of us will see parity in our lifetime, and when you read excuses such as these, is it any wonder?
There is one thing to be said. It's a pivotal time for women. We are voting with our feet in response to these types of excuses, and we're leaving. The upside is we're starting our own businesses and setting our own agenda. I did. But, at a more macro level, we need to keep having the conversation, highlighting these antiquated thoughts, increasing representation not just in terms of gender, but background too, so that boards are no longer old white men. If that means quotas, let's have quotas, so it becomes normalised and that when our kids grow up, it's not even a question – 'of course there's a diverse executive, why wouldn't there be'?
These excuses present a narrow view and network, while a conscious effort to have diversity in thinking, manner and leadership has proven to shape businesses positively. The MSCI's report on women on boards, which surveyed and analysed over 21,980 firms in 91 countries, found that 'strong female leadership generated a return on equity of 10.1% per year versus 7.4% for those without.'
There's data to say that hiring strong female leaders works to businesses' advantage, but it also creates a positive hiring effect. I've spent my career seeking out strong female leadership to learn from in every job I've had, so I'd argue that hiring pace-setting female leaders will attract more, too. In my role now, it's my job to mentor and set a positive example to the women in our business and industry to show that female leadership is a crucial part of business success and that it's a desirable, achievable thing.
When I worked in agencies I saw these kind of attitudes and behaviour [from male executives] frequently. Thankfully I've been able to work with leaders at these places to address these behaviours and attitudes head-on. Staying silent doesn't help anyone.
To increase the number of female executives, broader networks and a greater awareness of the positive impact (through data) is needed. But confidence and drive from women to push through is also important. We can't wait to be asked to step up, we have to all work together to keep change happening.