Nicki Denholm: We need to talk about gender diversity

When International Women's Day takes place this week, there will be the usual celebration and commentary around the members of the fairer sex who have made an impression on the world stage during 2016.

Nicki Denholm says the 'old boy network' still exists in many Scottish boardrooms. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Nicki Denholm says the 'old boy network' still exists in many Scottish boardrooms. Picture: Stewart Attwood

While the sphere of politics has seen women to the fore in leading roles in governments across every continent, when it comes to the business world extensive industry research suggests we remain behind the curve.

Globally, female executives held just over 15 per cent of directorships at mid to large cap companies in 2016, up less than a percentage point against the previous year and highlighting the lack of progress being made on gender diversity in the boardroom.

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There were a few silver linings. When Jessica Uhl became Royal Dutch Shell’s chief financial officer last year, another notable notch was marked in the progression of women at CFO level. This is good news, not least because many CFOs go on to become CEO.

In a similar vein, the proportion of female non-executive directors at the UK’s top listed companies has almost doubled over a 5-year span to something close to 30 per cent in 2016. On the downside, less than 10 per cent of women occupy executive posts indicating that having a female non-executive is not boosting executive headcount. In common with the rest of the UK, it’s disappointing that in Scotland in 2017 there is still more than a touch of “the old boy network” about many Scottish boardrooms.

I also think it’s important to draw a distinction here between what might be considered a “nice to have” in relation to more women in top positions and the idea that this should be more of a mainstay for companies who want to thrive and attract the best talent. Research consistently indicates that well-managed gender diversity can improve financial performance and that recruiting and promoting women creates better decision-making and improved business outcomes. Having spent the past decade and more running an executive search and recruitment firm and working closely with senior executives across multiple industry sectors, this is a subject close to my heart. The amount of great female talent I have met across all disciplines in Scotland is extraordinary, yet I have a strong sense we are not doing the best by so many of these exceptional individuals.

I have been struck by the reducing numbers of woman applying for senior roles and from women returning from maternity leave who face inflexible employers who refuse to look at how they could better balance child care responsibilities with the day job. We often hear companies say they have a “policy of flexibility” but, in practice, far too many just don’t walk the talk. Perhaps more companies should be thinking about a specific programme for hiring and retaining women. There needs to be a leadership conviction that this really matters - it needs to resonate in a company’s culture and then be borne out by seeing results coming through the system. In an era of ever-intensifying competition for talent, how do we bring great female talent into our organisation – does our “Employer Brand” clearly articulate what makes us a great employer and how do we retain this talent and create more successful woman leaders? All questions that every organisation should be addressing. At Denholm, we believe we need to proactively follow the code of good practice and put diversity on the agenda in the appointment process itself. We need to challenge the client brief.

On one level, granted this might be easier for me to say. I am a female founder with a strong female representation in the agency’s senior management. But surely gender balance is much more than simply a “woman issue”. It is at the core of what good businesses should stand for by tapping into the full potential of men and women, to become a strong, more innovative organisation.

• Nicki Denholm is MD and founder of Denholm Associates