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Dr Thérèse Coffey MP: How to boost the role of women in business at the top

Coffey ThereseDr Thérèse Coffey is the MP for Suffolk Coastal and PPS to Michael Fallon MP.  She and Mary Macleod MP co-chair the Executive Women in the Workplace Inquiry by the Conservative Women’s Forum. 

Despite the strong business case for gender diversity, the percentage of senior female executives in the UK’s top 100 companies is lower today than in 2007.  In 2010, the Government asked Lord Davies of Abersoch to make recommendations on increasing the number of women in the boardroom. His report and subsequent action has boosted the number of women on boards, though principally as non-executives.  In our report published last week, the Conservative Women’s Forum tackled the issue of increasing the number of female executive directors.  We set out clear steps and policies for companies, the Government and women themselves to fill the executive pipeline of talent.

Last year, McKinsey & Co.’s “Women Matter” study showed the correlation between companies with more women in their senior management and higher financial returns.  Other research has found greater gender diversity improves corporate governance, decision-making and connection with market.  However, the number of FTSE 100 senior female executives actually fell to 15 per cent last year, lower than in 2007.  This may explain why there are only three female CEOs in the FTSE 100.

Since companies benefit from having more senior women, they must take responsibility for building the pipeline.  We oppose the quotas threatened by the European Commission.  Rather, companies should collect and publish detailed data which will allow them to set objective targets and measure their progress.  In manufacturing this follows the “MUCI mindset” – you can’t improve what you don’t control; you can’t control what you don’t understand; you can’t understand what you don’t measure.  Put another way, to improve you have to know your starting point, and what gets measured gets done.

Companies can bring about progress in other ways, too.  Unconscious bias training can be a simple but effective tool to ensure that appointment and promotion decisions are made on a meritocratic basis.  Formalised programmes for women on career breaks or who are returning to work will make staying in the pipeline a more attractive prospect for women.

Nor does the pipeline start with companies, but with schools and universities.  The UK has the fifth worst gender gaps in the OECD in both science and maths.  Bridging these gaps would help the economy by up to £23bn - so we believe businesses should be playing a leading role in shaping the career aspirations of young women.

The Government can work to back up this business-led approach.  Lord Davies’s initiative has led to company reporting on gender diversity in their boardrooms and executive committees.  This should be extended into the pipeline where the toughest challenge lies.  The Government can also help by setting an example.  We call for the extension of Lord Davies’ remit to cover the public sector, together with the professional services industry, which faces many of the same challenges as listed companies.

While business and the Government can do much, executive women are ultimately responsible for their own career development and progression.  They can take steps to help themselves, for instance by seeking out sponsors and taking on “stretch” assignments early in their careers.

At our launch, Alison Carnwath – the only FTSE 100 Chairman, heading up Land Securities – stressed the importance of leadership within companies and self-help. We are encouraged by the reaction to our report. We will continue to press for these recommendations which ultimately will help British business growth. We are optimistic about the future for executive women.  More and more businesses are convinced by the sound financial reasons for greater gender diversity.  Our report shows them how to lead the field in building the executive pipeline of talent.


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