The number one change that will have the greatest impact on organisations: true gender diversity on the Board.


‘It is time to accept that it’s not the women that we need to change [in order to achieve gender diversity at board level] but it is the culture that needs to change, to one that accommodates and supports the other 50% of the talent pool.’ The Female FTSE Board Report 2022, Cranfield and EY.

I love this quote. For me, it sums up a crucial and longstanding issue in one succinct sentence.

Research demonstrates that, from 2018 to 2022, Board diversity targets DID result in more women leaders across the FTSE 350. However, according to Alison Kay, Managing Partner for Client Service at EY, UK & Ireland, “they are falling woefully short of the intended outcome – distributing the power and influence necessary to achieve true gender parity. Whilst over 50% of the UK population is female, there is a significant absence of women from our top board roles at a time when diverse leadership is needed more than ever, to help navigate businesses through deep geopolitical and market uncertainty.”

In my experience, there is often a sense of tokenism at a Board level about setting targets to increase female representation. As Alison is suggesting, it should be about the distribution of power and creating diversity of thought. What we don’t want to create is a sense that there is a woman appointed to a position just because of her gender rather than the true value of her skillset, experience and knowledge.

It’s more than just a Leadership Programme, it’s systemic change

Over recent years, I have seen organisations introduce ‘Women in Leadership’ or ‘Return to Work’ programmes, neither of which result in meaningful, fundamental change. Sponsorship of women is essential, but it is a waste of time and effort if the culture and behaviours within the business do not support women coming back to work and/or truly challenging the status quo.

There is countless evidence that women do not assert themselves regarding reward and promotion as much as their male counterparts. There is also evidence that women are more likely to be champions of DEI and the Wellbeing of team members; two things extremely important for the overall health of the team and business that are often underrated or bypassed during performance reviews.

I’ve seen this in the UK, but It’s a global issue.

In the US, ‘women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen, and ambitious young women are prepared to do the same. To make meaningful and sustainable progress toward gender equality, companies need to go beyond table stakes’, according to the 2022 Women in the Workplace Report from McKinsey and LeanIn.Org. The research goes on to say, ‘we’re amid a “Great Breakup.” Women are demanding more from work, and they’re leaving their companies in unprecedented numbers to get it. Women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen—and at higher rates than men in leadership.’ 

What can be done to retain women in the workplace?

Absolutely continue to sponsor and recognise ambitious and talented women who desire to, and have the potential to be, leaders – and properly invest in the career development of your future talent. At the same time, there are many cultural changes that can help women feel committed to remain in your organisation.

  • Redefine flexible working. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for one team might not work for the other team. Empower teams to make the decision as to what flexible means for them and how it works in practice. Always review how things are working for everyone and adjust when necessary. Flexible working might mean only Monday to Friday, or it might mean 7 days a week for some people. You need to establish what will deliver the best results and outcomes for all.
  • Raise awareness for women’s health issues at an organisational level – from periods to pregnancy to perimenopause – this will significantly improve how women are treated and how supported they feel and how committed and how engaged they remain.    
  • Recognise that people’s energy and ambition changes over time. For example, returning to work post parental leave is not likely the best time to assess future potential, nor question the new parent’s career ambition. Equally, someone who is suffering with severe menopausal symptoms is not necessarily going to be in a place to take on a massive global role if they don’t have their hormones levelled or support in place.  
  • Move away from pure target setting and focus on transforming all of your people practices; things like performance reviews, succession planning, job adverts. These should all be reviewed to help promote more equitable language, simpler job ads and more importance placed on the pastoral care of the team.
  • Create psychologically safe environments, where challenging the status quo is the norm and diversity of thought is encouraged. Empowering individuals to set boundaries between work and personal time.
  • Make it easier for everyone to have the ability to take extended time off to care for a relative or child without judgement of their performance.

This is not necessarily about positive discrimination, or affirmative action, it’s about making workplaces better. Going back to the Female FTSE Board Report 2022, we can’t ignore that 50% of the population are women and we need to do more to support and accommodate them in the workplace. It’s not a huge amount of effort to impact significant progress.

At Rosby, we’re on a mission to improve the experience of work for everyone. In doing so, we believe that people and businesses will thrive – creating happy, healthier workplaces.

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