Why boardroom gender diversity needs an unlikely champion

Historically civil rights movements found allies in the most unexpected of people. When trying to achieve greater boardroom equality, the UK may find torchbearers in surprising places

Why boardroom gender diversity needs an unlikely champion

When the government’s discrimination watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), turns its powerful beam on an area of business, it’s time to sit up and listen. Even more so when the EHRC’s conclusions feature words such as “inexcusable” and “unacceptable.” This was the commission’s uncompromising verdict on FTSE 350 companies’ varied progress towards greater female boardroom representation. And this wasn’t some light-touch investigation: it claims to be the most detailed examination carried out into board level recruitment and appointment practices in these companies.

What about the Davies Review into Women on Boards I hear you ask? I’m not completely sure why there have been two government-style reviews into boardroom gender diversity, although I’m not going to complain about the continued focus on this issue. Certainly the EHRC report pulls no punches, throwing out statistics like just 47% of companies actually increased their female boardroom representation over the period covered by the enquiry, while 46% of boards either remained the same or even decreased the proportion of women. The report concluded that “despite welcome progress and vital work by Lord Davies, our top boards still remain blatantly male and white… the good work of a forward-thinking minority masks that many top businesses are still only paying lip service to improving the representation of women on boards.”

Coming off the back of another EHRC report issued the same week – which claimed that three-quarters of pregnant women and new mothers had experienced discrimination – it’s enough to make working women desert UK plc in droves. Except, of course, other countries’ records on boardroom gender diversity – the US for example – really aren’t much better.

Despite these dispiriting statistics, I don’t think working women have much option but to keep doggedly campaigning for change. History shows that the forces of discrimination and prejudice rarely win out against dynamic and progressive grassroots groups absolutely determined to challenge the status quo.

Take the example of the civil rights movement in the US or the suffragette movement here in the UK. And no, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to compare the struggle for greater gender diversity on the boards with these earlier battles: at the end of the day, what these movements have in common is that they are taking on entrenched elites to secure fairer representation. And whilst the cause of women on boards might lack a figurehead as famous as Martin Luther King Jr. or Emmeline Pankhurst, it has a growing number of increasingly high-profile champions including Helena Morrissey, chief executive at Newton Investment Management, Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, and Brenda Trenowden, global chair of the 30% Club. Plus, of course, Sir Philip Hampton, the successor to Lord Davies and his deputy Dame Helen Alexander.

An interesting insight into the trajectory of the civil rights movements came from US attorney and campaigner Kate Kendell in a speech she gave in the US entitled What a Tipping Point Looks Like: LGBTQ Rights and Future. Kendell described how civil rights movements start with marginalised groups coming forward, followed by their families, friends and allies. However the tipping point only happens when unlikely allies, the people you don’t expect to show up, step forward. In terms of unlikely allies of the US LGBT community, Kendell cited President Obama, whose championing of LGBT issues has included repealing the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gay and lesbian members of the US armed services.

Now I’m sure we could have great fun naming unlikely allies of women on boards. Glencore anyone? Joking aside, there is definitely a vacancy for a high-profile, left-of-field warrior – male or female – to step forward and really champion the cause of women on boards. And it certainly beats the alternative. Historically, the comeuppance for those who stood in the way of progress was to be forgotten, merely footnotes in the annals of history. Today – thanks to 24-hours news and social media – those who prevent or, worse, just pay lip service to progress for women on boards risk a very different fate. 

Frances Dickens
Frances Dickens

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