Cable must act to help stem female brain drain

BUSINESS Secretary Vince Cable’s call to executive headhunters to present all-women shortlists is misguided; he is looking at the effect of female executive disengagement rather than the root cause.

Business Secretary Vince Cable. Picture: HeMedia

As headhunters, we work to find individuals whose talent is a rare commodity, with a specific blend of skills, experience and cultural fit. At this stage, insisting upon all-women shortlists would be unlikely to reveal the very best talent for our clients.

The majority of businesses, large corporates and SMEs are already looking for gender equality in their businesses and would have no issue with meritocratic all-women shortlists. The big issue for us as headhunters is that there are still relatively few women operating at a senior level from whom to select.

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Most often this is because female executives have not been encouraged to stay invested in their careers, as traditional workplace models are not suited to modern working women, with many high-flyers leaving corporate life in their 30s and finding fulfilment elsewhere, often working as entrepreneurs or transitioning into more family friendly sectors such as not for profit, healthcare, education or government.

Even Sheryl Sandberg, probably the best-known female executive in the world, has acknowledged that it will not be her generation which reaches equality in the boardroom, as the work wasn’t done ten to 20 years ago to keep the talent pool engaged.

The tide is now turning in the UK, with businesses recognising the need to prevent the costly “brain drain” of young female executives by offering more flexible working and job-sharing options. The current government has offered further support with the advent of shared paternity leave and some tax breaks for working parents.

If Vince Cable wants to see equality in the boardroom, then he needs to look at how his Government supports working families today so the talent is there to select from in years to come. Investment in broader and more affordable childcare and further encouragement of creative employment models will allow the talent pool to develop to a stage where we see the authentic emergence of shortlists where the best candidates just happen to be women.

• Louise Gibson is a director of Livingston James, executive search consultants