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Gender equity: Turning doubters and resenters into allies
Insights - What We Think

Caroline Emmet | Associate Director

Taking the opportunity at the end of a busy week to reflect on the findings from the FTSE Women Leaders Review 's 2024 report and insights from the Panel discussion at the launch event on Tuesday, particularly the invaluable insights from Nimesh PatelElliott Rae and Orna NiChionna, beautifully facilitated by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.

We do indeed have much to celebrate in terms of the progression in gender diversity at senior levels in the UK’s largest companies since we started measuring it and encouraging companies to voluntarily meet some challenging and rising targets. As a company secretary involved with a number of boards over almost 10 years, I’ve seen a real shift in the intent and tone of conversations about gender, ethnicity and other forms of diversity.

One example that illustrates this is the shift from Boards saying that they value diversity “but appointments will be on merit”, to “and appointments will be made on merit”. A small change on paper, but a significant acknowledgement that the talent is out there if you are prepared to look for it.

Also, in the case of companies with employees, a much more purposeful scrutiny by Nomination or ESG Committee of the diversity of the talent pipeline leading up to the executive director roles, the actions being taken to strengthen it and whether they are yielding the desired results. However, the Panel echoed my experience that this is the space where there is often lingering resistance to gender diversity, with some people thinking that the diversity agenda has been pushed far enough (or too far) and male colleagues feeling there is no longer space for their career progression.

Whenever I hear that last point, my immediate, mischievous reaction is the perhaps now-hackneyed “A belated welcome to the world of women …”  And to point them to the data, which shows that over 60% of Board and senior leadership appointments are still going to men. But I recognise a more constructive approach is needed and therefore really welcomed the Panel’s suggestions on effective ways of converting doubters and resenters into allies.

The discussion around promoting a diverse, equal and inclusive workplace by breaking down traditional gendered parenting was a very real example. I loved the idea of "parenting out loud" - leading by example and talking about it. The real-life stories and statistics of the resulting benefits for men, their spouses and their families were a real eye-opener. This is an important topic to get onto management’s and the board’s agenda and Elliott Rae has given me a whole load of reading and research to look up. Check out his summary here and for the parents amongst you - check out MusicFootballFatherhood and pass it on!

Nimesh Patel’s examples and the changes achieved at Spirax Group show just what can be achieved within a relatively short time frame if you have the right commitment and determination - even in a sector which you’d expect to struggle with gender balance. That’s one annual report I will be combing through for more information on how they’ve achieved these positive diversity outcomes ...

While generally we have focused on the importance of the Chair and the CEO setting the tone from the top and driving the diversity agenda, the discussion also highlighted the critical role of the Chief HR Officer. Orna NiChionna noted that Erica Bourne had been in charge of HR at Burberry when the company introduced its global equal parenting leave policy in 2019, and in 2023 moved on to become Chief People Officer at the London Stock Exchange Group, which has just introduced a global equal parenting leave policy as part of its commitment to creating an equitable, diverse and inclusive workplace.

If any of the above intrigues you, it’s well worth making the time to listen to the Panel discussion available here. Or at least read through just four pages of the Review's report: the section headed “A Shared Challenge, Gender Equality in the Workplace” on pages 22 and 23 and the results from a survey on the changing skills and attributes required from leaders on pages 32 and 33.

And an additional encouragement from me - if you haven’t done so already, think about whether to follow the example of companies and organisations who have set explicit equal diversity targets for men and women – say “at least 40% women and at least 40% men”, or even 50:50. Again, small change on paper (and actually in practice), but meaningful in terms of demonstrating a commitment to making space for female and male talent in your organisation.

(And if you're intrigued to know which 4 of the UK's largest private companies chose not to respond to the Review's request for data, their names are listed on page 28!)

Caroline Emmet

Associate Director