Catherine Quinn asks if the boardroom equality battle is ending, as reports show more Scottish firms than ever have women executives
IT WAS only a decade ago when the make up of Scotland’s executive board members painted a woeful picture for equality. The almost universally all-male boards seemed reticent to give women a chance, and those that did made token appointments. Fast forward into the new millennium and the picture has changed substantially, with more female board members than ever. But has it improved enough for women to be truly equal at work?
According to the figures, the answer is both yes and no. Certainly, those championing equality have reason to celebrate in 2012. This year saw both Scotland and the wider UK hit government targets to have one quarter of all executive board members female. One in four, however, is still substantially less than 50-50, and the existence of all -male boards has not been dispensed with entirely. But those at the recruitment sharp-end, report substantial differences in both statistics and attitude.
“We’ve seen enormous changes, and this seems to be happening faster and faster as the years progress,” says Estelle James, associate director of recruitment specialist Robert Half, which runs an Edinburgh office. “We’ve just got statistics back comparing levels of equality at board level and there’s been a huge shift in women represented at board level in the last four years or so.”
Half’s research, which spanned the years 2009 to 2012, noted a substantial drop in all-male board rooms. “Men-only boards fell from 21 per cent to 8 per cent,” says James. “There’s still work to be done, but that is a big difference. The culture has changed too. A few years ago I could pin-point the type of organisations which would be more likely to hire females at board level. They were sectors such as retail or cosmetics. But now it is diverse.”
James believes there is a generational difference too. Whereas women making it to board level 20 years ago were often expected to run a home as well, modern Scotland sees home and child-rearing tasks more evenly split between the genders. Paternity leave has also helped plug the gap, with more men than ever taking advantage of their government allocation and taking a more active role in childcare.
So the model has shifted from the 1980s power-suited woman “having it all” to a more egalitarian stance of “sharing it all”.
“It’s about choices, rather than ‘having it all’,” confirms Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting, which works with various Scottish organisations. “Successful women know that, even if they are well-organised, they can’t do everything. Holding down a senior role is a stretch. It means compromising in all directions.”
So do men also have to make these compromises? “Men have to do it, though the areas of compromise will be different,” says Russell. “Big, demanding, interesting, well-paid jobs mean big effort, big thought, big commitment by the post holders. You can’t run businesses like ICI on 20 hours a week. Women have striven for a long time for the opportunity to shine in the boardroom. Those that have arrived do. Those who are on their way up will. Go for the stars ladies, you deserve it, but please be realistic about what’s required to do the job well.”
Russell’s view is reflective of the fact that opinions have also changed when it comes to how gender equality in the boardroom can be attained. A few decades back, women were expected to slog it out to prove themselves the same as men. But the millennial approach is different. Now many companies take the attitude that men and women workers are equal but different in their needs and approaches.
This has been shown in various employment research projects. And the most recent, undertaken by Talent Innovation, polled 14,000 leaders and concluded that males and females had gender-specific skills when it came to operating at executive level.
The research suggested that when it came to planning and actively managing, female executives scored highest. Women also did best in terms of empathy and respect for other staff, and taking personal responsibility in business. Men scored highly when it came to areas of strategic vision, commercial focus and personal impact.
The moral of the story is that the different leadership skills championed by each gender are complementary, and so a mixed boardroom can expect to have a more rounded skillset than one slanted towards a certain gender.
This confirms what experts have been saying for decades – that it’s not just a matter of fairness to see women executives equally represented, it’s one of good business sense.
“Real change will only be driven when boards and investors genuinely believe in the business benefits of diversity, and consequently drive wholesale cultural change within their organisations,” confirms Tony Vardy, managing director of Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann, an executive search and leadership consultancy. “Positive steps could include early assessment to identify women with high potential coupled with development programmes and more flexible working practices.”
In fact, development and education seem to be key for change, with Robert Half’s survey finding that 70 per cent of executives polled believed this was the strategy which would make a difference. Another 47 per cent thought performance targets would help, and a further 40 per cent suggested flexible working practices were key to plugging the gap.
As far as many female executives are concerned, the battle has not yet been won, but the need to fight hard for recognition has abated. In fact, the general view is that now equality has gathered such strong momentum, it is inevitable that the gap will be ironed out completely in another decade.
“When you consider the differences between how women were treated 30 years ago and their experiences now, the changes are phenomenal,” says Estelle James. “It wasn’t so long ago it was legal to pay women less than men. Now young women coming into the workplace would have hardly any expectation that they would be treated less favourably due to their gender.”
For others, however, ten more years is far too long to wait for the majority of Scottish boardrooms to reflect the wider population. So perhaps it’s time for government targets for equality to take stock and issue expectations which are more in keeping with the modern workplace.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: East
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east