What change is more women on boards creating?

Breaking down barriers and shifting mindsets requires a more grassroots approach

Now that the corporate banners declaring support for gender equality on International Women’s Day have come down, it is worth reflecting on what practical steps businesses need to take to ensure this commitment is enduring.

Over the last century, there has been no shortage of women from whom younger generations can draw inspiration, from the leaders of the Suffragette movement, to laureated scientists, to politicians and heads of state. The business world is no different and there has been considerable progress in establishing greater representation of women at the highest levels of industry. Initiatives such as the 30% Club have been successful in raising awareness of the paucity of women at board level and has made progress in addressing that imbalance.

The importance of women occupying senior positions, particularly in sectors, such as the financial services industry, that have historically been male dominated, cannot be underestimated. This visibility offers those at the early stages of their working life tangible evidence that they too can succeed in businesses where they may previously have felt their aspirations were limited or where they may have ruled out embarking on a career entirely.

However, while this greater gender equality within positions of authority is to be lauded, it is important that it does not become an exercise in tokenisation. A company might appoint women to its board, but that in itself does not necessarily mean that gender diversity is fully embraced by the business as a whole. A handful of women sitting within the C-suite may satisfy the criteria for inclusion set by stakeholders, but it says little about how that permeates down through the various levels at a firm.

Grassroots approach

Rather than analysing the man-to-woman ratio in decision-making roles, a much more pertinent question is around the level of change this diversity is actually affecting. To break down barriers and change mindsets requires a more grassroots approach, one that can shift the structures in place that might not be supportive to women’s professional development.

Establishing an inclusive working environment is an essential first step. First and foremost, all employees must feel comfortable within the workplace and an employer should be sensitive to the particular needs of a diverse workforce.

This manifests itself in many ways, from ensuring that these differing needs are accommodated to the most practicable extent to promoting a culture that is accepting of diverse backgrounds and that is not afraid to call out actions that do not conform with acceptable behaviours. 

It is equally important that employees are not begrudgingly compliant to inclusive policies – any shift in corporate culture requires the buy in of all stakeholders if it is to have any meaning.

Mentorship can be incredibly important in supporting younger women as they carve out their career in financial services and other male-dominated professions. The guidance of a senior manager, man or woman, who can help them find their voice and feel comfortable in expressing an opinion can be invaluable. 

For example, the opportunity to ask ways in which difficult situations can be confronted is invaluable in building confidence and the importance of having a confidential space to raise concerns or call out bad practice cannot be underestimated.

Of course, mentorship is a two-way street, and those offering guidance can also gain a deeper understanding of the apprehensions and frustrations experienced by women in the workspace, which in turn enables them to become a more effective ally.

It might seem obvious, but it is also incredibly important to remember that gender equality does not necessarily lead to greater diversity. A greater representation of women at all levels of a business is all well and good, but if they are drawn from similar backgrounds, a company will not benefit from the broader perspectives and experience that true diversity across all demographics can bring.

International Women’s Day has an invaluable role in ensuring the discussion around gender diversity and diversity more broadly remains alive. However, without this leading to meaningful change beyond tokenistic representation of women within business, the essential message of the day rings hollow.