Is Gender, still on the Agenda?

Mary Jane Kingsland

As a prelude to International Women’s Day 2013, I was privileged to speak to a group of local businesswomen at the commercial offices of HSBC in Norwich. IWD is an annual worldwide celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future; alive and thriving since 1909, the thrust for this year is ‘The Gender Agenda’.

Gayle Lacey, HSBC’s Director of Business Banking UK, opened the event with a timely reminder that despite compelling research that companies with strong female representation on their boards consistently perform more profitably than those without, women are still woefully under represented at corporate level.

If this is the case – and empirical evidence confirms it is – then why, 104 years on, is Gender, still on the Agenda?

The answer is clear, although much has improved since women gained the right to vote, the fact is that during a century which has wholeheartedly embraced technology; landed a man on the moon and opened up the wonders of the world to us all, via the world wide web and social media, we still struggle with the issue that one half of the human race is not only equal to the other half but  well qualified to work alongside, as an equal.

Worryingly, the percentage of women on the boards of the UK’S biggest companies has fallen for the first time since figures were first compiled in 1999. Women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies fell to 17.3 per cent this month. Jane Scott, UK Director of BoardWatch cited concern that we will not reach the target of 25 per cent by 2015, set by Lord Mervyn Davies in his 2011 review of Women on Boards. At the current rate it will take over 70 years to achieve gender balance in the boardroom.

Vince Cable took up the equality mantle in January when he addressed the 30% club – a group aimed at bolstering female board representation to 30%% without mandatory quotas. He followed his address by writing to the companies in the FTSE 100 who do not currently employ a female board member and urged them to promote diversity from within, commenting that, “doing nothing is not an option anymore” and pointing out, “it is about good governance and good business. We only have to draw upon international evidence to support the fact that diverse boards are better boards; benefiting from fresh perspectives, opinions and new ideas which ultimately serve the company’s long term interests”.

If we are to finally embrace equality and confine gender discrimination to the history books, we must continue to challenge the organisational and social barriers that allow the miscreants to perpetuate the myth that all is well on the gender front. Quite honestly, it makes me want to bang my forehead repeatedly on the table when anyone tries to diminish the reality of the situation by citing some ‘factoid’ that supports the comfortable view that all is well – and any problem only exists in the over active imagination of the hormonally disadvantaged.

The playing field is far from even. Karen Brady, VC of West Ham Football club is among those backing Mentore, a mentoring company designed to boost women executives. She predicts that 2013 will see increases in female board positions and more headlines featuring their successes.

I sincerely hope she is right.

Mary-Jane Kingsland