Finding ways to ensure the path to the boardroom is equally accessible to male and female employees is one of the most pressing and controversial HR issues facing corporations.

It’s difficult to argue that businesses simply don’t believe in the business case for greater diversity at the top of the organisation. Wide support for the Davies Report’s recommendations, on ensuring greater leadership team diversity and the creation of new business leader-led networks (for example, the ’30 per cent club’), suggest otherwise. Yet, there is still a huge amount of work to be done. In researching our members – who include three quarters of FTSE 100 companies – we found only 11 per cent of UK executive committee members are female.

Urgency doesn’t equal solution

The introduction of new government enforced quotas regarding the percentage of women in the boardroom might create an ongoing urgency to focus on the problem, but it doesn’t introduce a solution. The problem today is not that organisations aren’t willing to invest in hiring and developing rising female talent, but that there simply aren’t enough women in the leadership pipeline.

CEB member companies’ experiences in dealing with this issue have shown us that many senior roles simply aren’t designed to be attractive to females. In fact, only a quarter of the 6,900 mid-level female employees surveyed by CEB felt moving to a senior leadership position was desirable. In short, the way most senior roles are structured means a large proportion of women with the skills to perform at the highest level don’t want to take them on.

Issues facing women in senior roles

One of the biggest issues women face when looking to take on a senior role is the prospect of moving to another country. Sixty per cent of companies around the world are planning to expand into new countries in the next three years. This means most have a growing tendency to develop the skills of future leaders by giving them responsibility in new markets abroad. The problem is, women are 13 per cent less likely than men to be prepared to relocate abroad to advance their career.

Dual career networks for couples

A reason for this disparity is that 80 per cent of women, compared with 60 per cent of men, have partners with careers. When one partner relocates the other is forced to find a new job, acting as a powerful barrier to relocation for employees of both genders. To counter this problem, some leading organisations have joined forces to establish dual career networks that help relocating spouses to find new jobs. This has significantly increased the number of women in their leadership pipelines.

Our insights suggest that targeted hiring and development strategies alone won’t fix the diversity problem. Organisations are well advised to instead look at fundamental root-causes such as the nature of senior roles, global career paths and manager behaviours to support greater workplace inclusion.

Written by Christopher Ellehuus, managing director of CEB.

Chris is a managing director in CEB. Having previously worked for CEB as a researcher, Chris has lived and studied in six countries, helping businesses around the world improve their talent management and development strategies

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