Strategies to get women into senior roles - does any of it work?

Strategies to get women into senior roles - does any of it work?

Quotas. Mentors. Networks. Culture change. Carrot. Stick. Not a week goes by without another law firm announcing a new strategy to get more women into senior roles, but does any of it work? Academics at Cambridge University have been examining the evidence and their findings are intriguing to say the least.

At Cambridge Judge Business School, Professor Sucheta Nadkarni and her team have been conducting a major study of more than 1,000 organisations in 41 countries to find out what factors influence the percentage of women promoted to boards and, crucially, how long they remain on the board.

The team found that the average percentage of female board representation rose from 9%  to 16.4% from 2004 to 2013. Norway, which has quota legislation, had the highest percentage at just under 40%, ahead of Sweden and Finland, with the UK ranked sixth at 16%.

However, none of the top six ranked countries seem to keep their women on the board for very long. Indeed, the highest average tenure among female board members was seen in Mexico (around eight years) and Hong Kong and the US, suggesting that while a quota system promotes women to directorships, they only hold onto them if other factors are in play.

Overall, the study found that women remained directors longer in countries with greater “female economic power”, measured by expected years of schooling and percentage of women in the labour market, and “a requirement for gender diversity in the corporate governance code”. A country’s maternity provisions and strong “female political power” (percentage of female-held parliamentary seats) also made a difference.

According to Professor Nadkarni: “This result suggests that empowering women outside the boardroom is key to getting women in the boardroom and keeping them there. One of the biggest hurdles for women is lack of sponsorship – less than a third of women have sponsors compared to males. This makes it very difficult to penetrate the right networks essential to get ahead.

“Our findings also suggest that by sending a signal of preferential treatment and compromise of merit, quotas can create a hostile environment for women and result in a revolving door,” continues Professor Nadkarni. “So quotas should not be looked at as a ‘quick fix’ because their long-term effects are not very clear. A better way to improve gender imbalance in leadership is to expand the pool of women qualified to reach the top through training, mentorship and maternity provisions.”

At the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, the Centre’s director, Dr Jude Browne, has also been looking closely at the politics and practicalities of mandatory quotas, considered by many to be counterproductive.

One of the most common objections to quotas is that they undermine merit, thereby reducing a company’s ability to function optimally. A second objection is that quotas are discriminatory,
and a third that quotas undermine  the achievements of successful women who have risen to the top under their own steam.

Into this arena, Dr Browne proposes what she calls the Critical Mass Marker (CMM) approach that enables organisations to tailor their approach to diversity at all levels. The CMM approach eschews blanket quota solutions but still recognises that to do nothing structural to enhance the number of women in senior roles (at least in the short term) is likely to end in continued failure.

The CMM approach instead requires organisations to commit to identifying situations where there is “a thwarted critical mass” – clusters of highly skilled women who are not progressing to more senior levels –organisations would then apply proportionate quotas accordingly.

This approach is more subtle than recent EU proposals for blanket quotas of 40%, but arguably more effective, in that it specifically addresses each organisation’s segregation patterns at all levels rather than simply focusing on the board. This in turn would ensure consistent upward movement through the so called “pipeline of talent”.

Provision does, of course, already exist in the UK’s equality laws entitling recruiters to use “positive action” to encourage applications from particular groups of people, or those who might have previously been disadvantaged. But that, says Dr Browne, sets out only a “mechanism” – whereas her proposal requires specific action.

“The CMM approach would ensure women equipped with the relevant skills are able to move up and across institutional structures in a consistent and effective way. It is a more proportionate response to an institution’s segregation patterns than existing proposals – and will give a much greater number of talented women the opportunity to reach their real potential.”

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