Breaking the Bottleneck: How Firms Struggle to Achieve Gender Balance


In 2015, the British government backed a recommendationOpens a new window to increase the number of women in leadership positions by raising their ratio on the boards of the 350 largest companies traded on the London exchange to 33% by 2020. At the time, statistics suggested that the number of women at the top was increasing, with 25% of board positions at the 100 largest companies filled by women.

But progress has stalled.

Last week, a trade body for the financial sector and an independent review body warned 69 companiesOpens a new window that they had to do more in order to meet the goal, lambasting the firms for having only one woman on their boards – and, in the cases of three companies, no women at all.

Among the companies with only one woman on their boards were Domino’s Pizza and JD Sports. The companies with no women were Daejan Holdings, a property company, TR Property Investment Trust and a hotel chain manager named Millenium & Copthorne Hotels. “A step change is needed in pace,” Denise Wilson, of the Hampton-Alexander Review that published the statistics saidOpens a new window .

The review body published similar rebukes last year during its gender diversity review, listing 11 companies that had all-male boards, and after it sent letters to the companies it reported that eight had appointed women to their boards.

“While several of the firms recognized the value of gender diversity, many others were unrepentant,” the review’s last report, published in November, noted. “They claimed the nature of their industry meant that women just weren’t interested or experienced enough to join the executive team of a company whose leadership was traditionally male-dominated.”

The absence of women in leadership roles has consistently plagued businesses, including tech companies. Data point: Of the best-performing companies identified by the Hampton-Alexander review, none – zero – were in the tech sector.

In many cases, though, the firms aren’t necessarily averse to include women in leadership. Those companies that remain “unrepentant” are fast dwindling and their positions could even become a liability in an era of increasing equality.

For the most part, there is an ever-growing awarenessOpens a new window about the benefits of promoting a more inclusive workforce, including various studies indicating that companies with more women on their boards enjoy higher returns. Aside from potential profits, including women can help companies tap into perspectives that are more representative of their potential consumer bases – up to 80% of consumer purchasing decisions in the US are generally driven by women.

In the boardroom, women are more collaborative, and some research suggests that having women in leadership encourages companies to make decisions that reflect a high degree of social responsibility.

But companies have run up against the results of decades of inequality in the workforce, including management and organizational structures that fail to facilitate equal opportunity and intergenerational cycles of preferential treatment of which they may not even be conscious.

And even when firms are committed to encouraging gender diversity, they may not be aware of the most effective ways to achieve it.

Mentorship is one tactic that has proven crucialOpens a new window for engendering the kinds of informal bonds that lead to promotion, and making conscious mentorship policies can help overcome unconscious bias. Launching a company-level metrics systemOpens a new window that quantifies progress towards achieving diversity at every level – from recruiting to leadership – can help identify places where women are being pushed away from advancement.

Finally, making family-friendly policiesOpens a new window that support parents, including flexible work time, work-from-home options and parental leave, can enable caregivers to deliver on their work while also meeting other obligations.

At the same time, some companies that are committed to gender diversity have started experimenting with other kinds of programs – some of which explicitly set out to bring more women into spaces where they might have been underrepresented before.

Goldman Sachs recently announced that it would launch a new initiativeOpens a new window to encourage female employees to spend a year as a trader. The initiative is part of a broader effort to bolster diversity at the company where fewer than 20% of more than 400 partners are women. So while the reports are bleak, there are many paths towards more inclusive business practices that, in the end, benefit everyone, male and female alike.