Why does the under-representation of women matter?

Having a good mix of male and female leaders in your organisation makes good business sense:

  • Firstly, it creates a stronger pipeline of future leaders by accessing all the talent that’s out there.
  • Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a balanced senior team brings a diversity of perspectives, experience and leadership styles to the table.

This can only result in more informed decision-making and more objective leadership. Supporting female talent is now firmly on the talent management agenda.

First, some facts to consider

You may be wondering:

“Why do we need to focus specifically on women. Won’t they benefit from our talent management practices anyway?” 

They may benefit in some ways; however, the business case for why organisations should specifically introduce measures to support female talent is clear. Here are the facts:

  • The number of FTSE 250 Companies with female directors has dropped from 38 to 30, with a current figure of 6.4%. This is lower than the 9.7% on FTSE 100 boards. [1]
  • There are 25 women holding executive roles at FTSE 100 boards with 22 companies. This has remained the same since 2017, with seven female chief executives and 10 female CFOs. [2]
  • Women CEO’s represent 6.6% of all Fortune 500 CEO roles, based on the magazine’s 2019 list. That’s a total of 33 Women CEOs. [3]
  • It is estimated that the UK would gain up to £23 billion (the equivalent to 2% of GDP) by better harnessing women’s skills in employment. [4]
  • 54% of women working part-time have been found to be ‘employed below their potential’, meaning that organisations are missing out on what many women have to offer. [4]

Here are five ways to change things in your organisation

#1. Gather data about the current situation

Although you may already have an inkling that your organisation could be doing more to support female talent, gathering accurate data about the current situation can help secure necessary support and buy-in for your plans. Your organisation’s HR or L&D team should also be involved, as they can help answer key questions like:

  • How many women does your organisation recruit?
  • What percentage of management positions are held by women?
  • What is your organisation’s turnover rate of women?
  • Are women particularly under-represented in certain departments or areas?
  • At what rate do women get promoted?

Doing your research will give you a clear starting point to work from. It will also provide you with the evidence you need to build a strong business case to help your organisation support and retain female talent. Once you’ve got some basic quantitative data, the next step is to supplement this with information gathered directly from your employees about their experiences. A good way to achieve this is by running focus groups (with both male and female participants), to ask employees about their opinions on key issues such as:

  • your organisation’s culture and working environment
  • how people are developed
  • promotion opportunities and career expectations
  • how work and family life is balanced
  • attitudes towards senior management

You could also gather this information via an online survey questionnaire. It is worth bearing in mind that people may be more willing to participate in an online survey, and may be more candid in their responses if they are anonymised.

#2. Get senior management buy-in

The senior team in your organisation must be committed to supporting female talent in the right way. This is about demonstrating genuine support, and ‘walking the talk’ wherever possible. Tone at the top is important, therefore your organisation’s board, top leaders and senior management team should be actively involved with, committed to, and accountable for gender diversity.

A positive example of the kind of support that makes a real difference is provided by Coca-Cola’s chief executive, Muhtar Kent. He has been the driving force behind the development and advancement of women into key roles. This makes sense when you consider that 60 to 70% of Coca-Cola’s customers are women. [5] Kent has pledged to achieve gender parity throughout the company by 2020. This will be achieved by:

  • Ensuring that managers understand how gender equality boosts the bottom line.
  • Developing a powerful business case to underpin the gender balance strategy.
  • Setting up a Women’s Leadership Council to advise senior leaders how to develop and promote women.
  • [6] Establishing the Global Women’s Initiative, a targeted plan to develop and accelerate the movement of female talent into roles of increasing responsibility and influence. [7]

#3. Increase accountability for gender diversity

Setting gender diversity targets, and making leaders and managers across your organisation accountable for recruiting, developing and promoting women are proven ways of improving gender diversity. [8]

To succeed, this approach needs strong commitment from an organisation’s leadership. To illustrate this, Klaus Kleinfeld, the chief executive of Alcoa (a mining company where women are particularly under-represented), made it a top priority for all operational managers to hire and develop women. Managers across all levels and regions were asked to regularly report on the diversity of their talent. They must also show the specific steps they are taking to develop employees, for example, by providing mentors, coaching, networking opportunities and development programmes tailored to the needs of women in particular. [9]

#4. Develop mentoring programmes for women

Having a good mentor can help aspiring leaders (both male and female) to the next level in their careers. However, mentoring has been shown to be especially important for women because they often have difficulty building social capital at work. Research suggests that this can be more of an issue in organisations which are male dominated. [11]

Despite the fact that 67% of women rate mentoring as highly important in helping to advance and grow their careers, 63% of women say that they have never had a formal mentor. [12] If you don’t already have one, setting up a formal mentoring programme to help women advance their careers is an essential step. As part of this, it can also be helpful to consider your organisation’s culture, and whether mentoring is rare or commonplace. The more accepted mentoring is in your organisation, the easier it will be for women to get involved.

Consider the following questions:

  • If you have a mentoring programme, are employees aware of it?
  • How could you improve the promotion and general awareness of your mentoring programme to women?
  • Do you share success stories to encourage people to get involved?
  • How do you select and train potential mentors?
  • How do you evaluate the success of your mentoring programmes?

#5. Promote flexible working – for everyone!

If you can offer your employees flexible working arrangements, your organisation will be better placed to retain valuable skilled talent (both male and female), and create a balanced workforce. [13] You could investigate a range of alternatives to full-time working such as: working part-time offering early/late starting and finishing times investigating whether roles can be fulfilled by job-sharing arrangements introducing flexi-time allowing people to work from home or in alternative location(s)

Some organisations offer flexibility to all employees, as a way of increasing engagement and productivity across the workforce. A related issue to be aware of here is the issue of presenteeism, and whether your organisation’s culture actively rewards ‘face time’ in the office and those who work full-time. A way to challenge this and move away from an emphasis on ‘face time’ is to encourage an organisational culture which is focused on the achievement of results.


Despite efforts to ensure gender balance, the reality for many organisations is that they fail to adequately support high-potential female talent. However, by putting systematic plans in place like the kinds of things suggested here, your organisation can start to make progress and reap the benefits of a more balanced workforce.

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[1] The Female FTSE Board Report, 1 Jun 2018. Available at: http://business-school.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/businessschool/documents/research/Female_FTSE_Report_2018.pdf (accessed 24 July 2019).

[2] Number of women in top boardroom positions falls, says report, 17 Jul 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jul/17/number-of-women-in-top-boardroom-positions-falls-report

Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva, ‘Women in Management: Delusions of Progress’ Harvard Business Review (1 March 2010). Available at: https://hbr.org/2010/03/women-in-management-delusions-of-progress (accessed 6 April 2015).

[3] List of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_women_CEOs_of_Fortune_500_companies

[4] UK Feminista, ‘Facts and statistics on gender inequality’, accessed 3 April 2015. Available at: https://ukfeminista.org.uk/

[5] Aimee Groth and Lauren Brown, ‘Muhtar Kent: Women are Coke’s most important market’, Business Insider (12 March 2012).

[6] Laura Sabbatini, ‘How can businesses boost their female talent pool?’ The Guardian blog (23 May 2013). Available at: www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/how-business-boost-female-talent-pool (accessed 5 April 2015).

[7] Moinak Mitra, ‘Coca-Cola CEO Mukhtar Kent advises his team to shed hubris’, The Economic Times (19 December 2013).

[8] Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency, ‘How to set gender diversity targets’. Available at: www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/SETTING-GENDER-TARGETS-Online-accessible.pdf (accessed 6 April 2015).

[9] Laura Sabbatini, ‘How can businesses boost their female talent pool?’ The Guardian blog (23 May 2013). Available at: www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/how-business-boost-female-talent-pool (accessed 5 April 2015).

[10] The Office for National Statistics describes social capital as the pattern and intensity of networks among people and the shared values which arise from those networks. Find out more at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/user-guidance/social-capital-guide/the-social-capital-project/guide-to-social-capital.html

[11] J C Chrisler & D R McCreary, Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology, Volume 2 (New York, Springer, 2010).

[12] Stephanie Neal, Jazmine Boatman and Linda Miller, ‘Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She?’ Available at: www.ddiworld.com/DDIWorld/media/trend-research/womenasmentors_rr_ddi.pdf?ext=.pdf (accessed 5 April 2015).

[13] All employees in the UK have the right to request flexible working. You can find out more about this at: https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/overview.