In February last year, Lord Davies of Abersoch released his review, Women on Boards, to promote greater gender diversity in the boardroom. At the time, 12.5 per cent of board-level positions were held by females. One year later, BoardWatch found that figure to be 14.9 per cent – a rise of 2.4 percentage points, which was described in some quarters of the media as a record rise. Unsurprisingly, despite this record, companies are still way off the 25 per cent target that Lord Davies set for 2015.

Interestingly, he also recommended that “FTSE 350 companies should be setting their own, challenging targets” and expects that “many will achieve a much higher figure than this minimum”. And what progress there? A Cranfield School of Management report quoted by the FT found that 89 per cent of FTSE 350 companies still had no female representation on their boards.

Do we really need females on company boards? Apart from making up half of the world’s population, across the world, women make the majority of consumer spending decisions. In essence, they form the largest proportion of most businesses’ customer base. This even applies in the world of social networking – Facebook has more female than male users, but its board is female-free.

Women also possess more high-level qualifications and their skill-set and expertise are said to be far more diverse and comprehensive than those of most men. Put simply, having more female board members leads to more balanced decision-making, and provides a better understanding of markets in which many of the customers are female.

The 2007 McKinsey study of the largest European companies found that those with at least three women on their executive committees significantly outperformed their sector in terms of average return on equity by about 10 per cent and operating profit was nearly twice as high. In a nutshell: a balanced board makes commercial sense.

No one expects change to happen overnight, but many boardrooms remain firmly off limits to women. It is widely believed the promotion process in an organisation becomes more subjective the more senior the post that is being filled. The people doing the hiring tend to recruit candidates who match their own image, so perhaps it is little wonder that overwhelmingly white, middle-aged, male boards of directors beget appointments that mirror themselves.

It has been suggested that at the current rate it could take 20 years or more to reach Lord Davies’ target. No wonder, then, that an increasing number of people, including the prime minister, David Cameron, have suggested setting quotas.

Norway introduced quotas in 2008 and now, approximately 42 per cent of board members are female. Spain’s gender equality law, passed in 2007, set a 40 per cent target to be reached by 2015. Yes, positive discrimination may help to tackle the problem of recruitment via the “old boy network” and force open boardroom doors to women, but given the scale of the economic challenge ahead and the commercial turbulence most companies face, it would be wrong to force boards to select women purely based on legality.

At this stage, companies need the best set of skills from the most talented candidates – both male and female – to provide effective leadership and direction. If decision-makers are serious about helping women to reach the highest echelons of business to drive growth and inject fresh thinking, they need to develop their skills and talent. Lessons can be learnt from the UK’s hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism industry, which has been actively tackling the gender gap head-on. This vibrant industry is responsible for one in 10 jobs in the UK and while the majority of the workforce (nearly 60 per cent) is female, only 6 per cent of board-level positions are held by women – less than half the national average.

A study by People 1st, the industry’s sector skills council, found that along with the difficulty of combining work at a senior level with child care, there were a number of other barriers that prevented women advancing to senior roles. These included preconceptions and gender bias in recruitment processes, exclusion from networks and a lack of women in visible senior positions. Developing women’s leadership and networking skills in particular has a significant and positive impact. The experience of Women 1st (one of People 1st’s programmes) of helping more than 700 females shows that once these issues are addressed, career progression often follows.

The World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Report estimates the benefits of breaking down the barriers to women’s lack of engagement in the workforce could boost the eurozone’s gross domestic product by as much as 13 per cent, which must be a motivational incentive to any ailing economy. There is a positive correlation between gender diversity in top leadership teams and a company’s financial results. It is more important than ever, therefore, to pay heed to one of the most cornerstones of financial growth available to companies and nations – the skills and talent of half the working population – which has been largely overlooked so far.

Governments can play an integral role in helping to facilitate women’s economic participation via practical maternity leave and working time directives. However, governments should not legislate to support positive discrimination. Quotas apply to fish stocks, not women.

Sharon Glancy is the founder of Women 1st, a leadership network and development programme for the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism industry

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