Gender Parity in 2029: Realistic or Optimistic?

Group of businesspeople having a meeting.By Kayla Turo

In a recent article published by The Guardian, Chris Sullivan, Chief Executive of UK corporate banking at RBS, pressed his belief that in 15-years, gender parity will not be an issue. Sullivan assured readers that talent is what should— and will— be the deciding factor of who wins executive roles in big business, and that it is merely a bad cultural habit preventing women from reaching these positions.

Considered a “diversity champion” and supporter of the organization Focused Women, Sullivan recognizes that the issue lie in what’s been considered a “leaky pipeline” system of advancement in corporate businesses. While most companies seem to hire recent graduates on a 50:50 basis to fill junior level positions, the number of women begins to dwindle higher up the ladder, according to Fiona Hathorn, Managing Director of Women on Boards, a UK-wide organization dedicated to providing resources and programs to support women on their path to the boardroom. Nothing reflected in recent research makes Sullivan’s ill-informed opinion even slightly plausible. It is overly optimistic at best and many, including Hathorn, do not view gender parity as a realistic option by 2029.

Reports Say Otherwise
“Too many companies do not even know their gender employment data at various managerial levels, which shows that many are not managing their talent let alone taking gender talent management seriously,” Hathorn said. “In fact, Cranfield School of Management’s November 2013 interim Women on Boards update reviewed 50 FTSE 250 companies, revealing that only 2 percent had clear policies or goals for ensuring an increase in female management.”

Research released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported that Britain in particular has gone from 9th place in 2006 to 18th in 2013 in terms of gender equality. Britain continued to rank low in other WEF statistics, including helping women find professional positions (71st), getting women into parliament (54th), and healthy life expectancy of women (97th).

Are Quotas the Answer?
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The UK is taking steps to rectify the situation. In 2011 The Lord Davies Commission began supervising the number of female board directors, raising the number from 17.4 percent in 2011 to 19 percent. Yet much of this progress is a result of boards merely increasing the number of female non-executives within their company.

European Commissioner for Justice and Rights, Viviane Reding, proposed a mandatory quota to solve this problem (40 percent women on 2-tier boards, 33 percent for unitary boards), leading to the assumption that employment of inadequate female talent would result. Sullivan told The Guardian he disapproved of quotas and leaned again on his argument that talent should be the only deciding factor of employment on executive boards.

“On the FTSE 100 there are just over 1100 board directors,” Hathorn said. “Given that we currently have about 200 female board members, we only need about 230 more to achieve the EU’s desired level of 40 percent. It is ludicrous to think that there are not at least this number of talented women who are experienced enough and able to bring expert thought and good governance to UK boards.”

The Importance of Transparency & Role Models
Hathorn believes that the solution lies in making board positions more “transparent” in order to target a broader range of women.

“There are many women with the capacity to serve on board at all levels, but lack of transparency in selection processes, narrow definitions of the skills and experience required, and a tendency to ‘recruit in their own image’ means women do not get to the starting gate when it comes to applying for board and leadership roles,” the managing director asserted.

Both Sullivan and Hathorn regard female role models as another important solution to current gender parity obstacles. “When junior women look to the leaders of their organization, they are more likely to stay if they see leaders who look like them demographically,” Hathorn quoted from a study from McGinn and Milkman of the Harvard Business School. Sullivan agrees, asserting that just a few powerful female professionals will drive more female talent “up the ladder.”

New is Needed
In the end, is it just about fairness? Not at all. We’ve all heard the business case for diversity in the boardroom and Hathorn believes that diverse boards are less likely to suffer from “groupthink”, which prevents them from opening up to alternative views and potentially stifles the growth of a corporation in a changing society.

“More than ever companies in all sectors need new thinking, new blood, and new people with different experiences,” Hathorn said. “Many of them could get this by simply appointing a few more women into top roles. Not really rocket science, but many women are starting to think it might be easier to get to the moon.”