Women in Interim: Equality and Leadership


25 Jan 2017

women, Executive Interim, Insights

With the suffragettes playing a key role in the 19th and 20th centuries, gender equality is deeply rooted in history. The Local Government Act 1894 confirmed and extended the right to vote to the majority of the female population in this country, paving the way for the rise of women in positions of power or leadership. But how far have we really progressed in this battle for equality? When considering the proportion of women in positions of power within the UK, has there been any change?

At Penna’s “Women in Interim” networking session , Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, provided an interesting insight as the speaker. The “shock” of Donald Trump taking over the reins of one of the most powerful countries in the world in the recent US election was the starting point of a very passionate and thought provoking debate. One of the biggest questions that arose was what would be the significance of this for women in the US? Does this mean that the battle for equality, as difficult as it is, has an additional obstacle to overcome ? How do we compare as a nation?  And, does having a woman in one of the most influential positions in the country actually make a difference?

In a government backed report in 2015, Lord Mervyn Davies stated that at least a third of board level positions should be occupied by women. This specifies that 33% of all board level positions should be occupied by a group of people who reflect just over 50% of the country’s population according to the 2011 census. Is it possible to take account of the diversity that can be found in the female population within a percentage that doesn’t reflect the scale of the population? A consequence of this limited representation is the creation of TWO hurdles to overcome for women of ethnic minorities.  

Putting aside representation of the population of the country, Did we  actually achieve  this percentage quota in 2016? The research conducted by European Women on Boards shows that we are falling far behind, not only in relation to our own targets but also in contrast to other European countries, at just 23.2% board representation in 2015. Comparatively, Norway, Finland, France and Sweden all hit above 30% representation. This under-representation in positions of power results in the creation of an unheard voice and a group of people whose needs are not being met by institutions in the public and private sectors. Equality is, and should be, one of the cornerstones of modern day society and yet this arbitrary figure does nothing to uphold or strengthen it.

Whilst some would argue that Norway’s success is due to the fact that there is a legislative requirement, this is not the case in Sweden or Finland. So what are the Nordic countries doing differently? Admittedly, the legislative prescription has added some fuel to the fire, nevertheless a major shift in the political landscape and proportion of women in professional roles has played a significant part. In the UK, just below 30% of the House of Commons and 26% of the House of Lords are female. Breaking this down a little further, in the 2015 Elections, there were 1033 female candidates, and of these only 191 were elected (just under 18.5%). Comparatively, most Nordic countries have a significantly higher proportion, for example, Sweden has the highest representation at 44.7%. This representation allows women’s rights to be heard and subsequently enshrined and protected in legislation. This can be seen in policy where maternity leave was replaced by equal parental leave which is mandatory for both parents.

This research made me think about how we work at Penna  and also compare with the  national averages. As an organisation, we are proud to have one of the  highest proportion of senior female leaders in our industry.  Our search and interim teams work closely with our clients to source executives across both the public and private sectors. 30% of our working interims in the last year are female and in 2015, 44% of the senior executives we appointed into the Public Sector were female. Whilst this is only a microcosm when looking at the whole of the country, these statistics show that when monitoring diversity it is possible to be more representative.

Our approach focuses on working closely with our clients to ensure that we are able to maximise diversity throughout the recruitment process. We will never recommend a single-sex longlist and will provide training, coaching and advice for recruitment panels and selection committees to understand and balance the impact of unconscious bias throughout the recruitment process. With some of our clients and their recruitment campaigns, we have redesigned processes which would have inadvertently put off candidates from non-traditional backgrounds and developed advertising that appeals to a wider range of potential applicants.

Whilst we have come a long way in terms of representation in leadership positions, there is still significant room to improve!  The general consensus in the room was that more needs to be done. The questions that arose were:

How can we reach levels of equality within leadership positions which reflect the make-up of the country’s population?

Do we lift a blueprint from our Nordic counterparts who are leading the way and embed equality in real terms into the values of the country, or is there an alternative approach we can take?

Research demonstrates that there a number of benefits that can be realised from having women in leadership. They bring innovation as well as a more robust economy which utilises the skills of the majority of the population, in turn increasing wealth not only of the nation but also individuals. I believe there is so much more that can be done in the UK. The starting point will always be the education system, where we are starting to see some innovation. For example, initiatives on increasing diversity with STEM subjects will provide a stepping stone into increasing diversity. There are significant steps that need to be taken at policy level to encourage equality to follow through to the workplace. Whilst the newest policies around shared parental leave and the long awaited regulations on Gender Pay Gap reporting are a starting point, more needs to be done from a political perspective to ingrain the values that are required into society for equality to truly become a reality.

Anj Popat, Executive Interim