FROM CAVEWOMAN TO CHAIRWOMAN – Where are we on this evolutionary timeline?

In just the last few weeks, the first female councillor was elected in Saudi Arabia as a result of allowing women to vote for the first time; and 535 year old Magdalen College School in Oxford has employed its first female head.   Things seem to be looking up from a gender equality perspective, and there is certainly no shortage of publicity on the subject.  Every day, a new post, a new blog, a new article is written – gender diversity/equality/parity is now an extremely hot topic.  This is clearly a good thing – the more something is talked about, debated, discussed, the more likely it is that change will occur.

Most of us, including government, appear to be on board – The Prime Minister David Cameron and Women and Equalities Minister Nicky Morgan have announced new measures to eradicate gender inequality in the work place and remove barriers to women’s success.  This includes a pledge to work with businesses to eliminate all-male boards in the FTSE 350.  Also, Lord Davies has raised the target of female representation on FTSE 100 Boards to 33% by 2020, following the achievement of his previous target of 25%.

With so much momentum, why is gender equality still taking so long?  Last month, the World Economic Forum predicted that it will take another 118 years to eradicate the global gender pay gap.  So if we’re all agreed that more needs to be done, 118 years seems a long time in which to achieve this equality …. Or is it?  One century, from a human evolutionary perspective is not a huge time-span.   Anthropologically, women have almost shut the cave door, and the boardroom one is much wider open.   But how can we shorten this timeframe in order to see results more quickly?

Women are a huge business opportunity, and the statistics on this have been well publicised – companies with three or more women on their Board generate a return on equity that is 36% higher than those without.   We cannot afford to under-utilise half the population.  Women under-represented in top leadership positions mean full business growth potential is not being realised.  So what’s preventing every culpable board in the country from immediately taking steps to add more women?  Is it a shortage of women in the pipeline?  Is it male board members hindering the process?  Is it women lacking confidence?  Is it women lacking ambition?

The answer is probably a mixture of all these factors and more, but as increasing numbers of women achieve board status, the goal of 35% (and more) should ultimately be self-fulfilling, and at an increasing pace.  After all, as more women find themselves on boards, the more they will be in the best position to ensure others find their way there too.  This, in turn, should give increasing numbers of women the confidence to aim for such status. Cultural norms that have been embedded for centuries will inevitably take considerable time to change; however, the momentum for gender equality seems never to have been so great, and hopefully this will help propel board diversity towards the achievement of Lord Davies’ target.

In subsequent articles, we will take a closer look at some of the issues identified here, and examine what can be done by all stakeholders to help eliminate prehistoric attitudes and norms, and consign discussions about gender equality to the cave.  Stay tuned …….

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