Increasing representation of women on private sector boards in Scotland

Report addressing barriers of equality and diversity in Scotland's private sector.

Case Study F


The company provides executive search and recruitment services for a range of clients mainly in Scotland. It is a global company with 33,000 employees world-wide. There are 30 employees in Scotland. The Scottish workforce is predominantly female with a 70:30 split. The company's board in Scotland has seven members, five of whom are women.

The director interviewed feels that it is beneficial to have more women on the board. Many of their clients are businesses where the majority of the workforce is female and many of their people they are trying to place are female. Having women on the board reflects the customers they have and gives them a stronger connection to their client base. As a recruitment company they feel it is their job to make the case for gender parity with their clients and so it is important they set a good example.

There are more women than men on the board and the director feels this brings benefits including diversity of thought on the board, which makes creative, innovative decisions more likely. They feel that they have a more rounded view of any issue and this helps them look at the issue from a range of perspectives to generate different ways of tackling the issue. They feel achieving gender balance is 'critical to the business' as there is a strong evidence base which shows that companies which achieve gender parity achieve better performance measured by metrics such as return on investment.

They believe that companies have the main responsibility for achieving diversity and gender balance. Chief Executives should be aware of the potential advantages and ensure that providing development opportunities for all groups is part of their business strategy.

Challenges around Achieving Gender Balance on the Board

Although they have a diverse board in terms of gender they feel there are still some barriers around race as Scotland has a less diverse population in terms of ethnicity. To address this they are developing an external advisory board, inviting people with a range of ethnic backgrounds to participate in this as they want to close any 'gaps in thinking' there might be because they do not have ethnic diversity on their board. They have a broad range of clients and customers to draw from to establish this advisory board which will then advise their main board.

oCmpany Policies and Practices

The company has a number of policies and practices that are relevant to promoting equality and diversity and gender balance including the following.

Promoting Equality and Diversity

The company has an equalities and diversity policy which covers all of the workforce and the board and covers recruitment and selection, career development and promotion and bullying and harassment. All recruitment consultants also undergo unconscious bias training so that they can be aware of the issues and advise clients and candidates of these. They encourage whistle blowing and positive challenges if any consultants come across problems around recruitment with their clients.

Changing the gender profile of the business leading to more females in senior management roles: The company also has a range of practices to develop the pipeline of people who have the potential to be future board members. All employees have a development plan which aims to help them achieve their potential. The company has also done some research into what kinds of support best helps female employees because they felt that their existing development interventions were not helping women progress into senior roles. This helped them to develop a much more targeted and individualised programme which identifies the kinds of support they need as an individual, which may include a particular type of training or coaching. It is 'no longer a tick-box exercise'. They have also found that mentoring works well. They have senior women in a variety of roles who can provide mentoring and good role models. These have helped more women to progress into senior management within the company and progress onto the board.

There is good support within the company to assist women to progress to senior management. Monthly appraisals help employees identify the areas they need to work on to help them to progress. There is flexible working within the company.

The experience of a female senior manager is useful here. She is interested in becoming a board member because she is ambitious and also sees herself working for at least another thirty years. However, at the moment she has a dual focus on her family and career and is working part time. When her children grow older she feels she will have a stronger focus on her career again. Although she feels she has skills and abilities that would be valued on a board including her knowledge, conflict resolution and human relations, she recognises she would need to increase her experience of boards and may think of trying to secure external non-executive roles at some point. One way to do this might be through donating time to the board of a voluntary or charity sector organisation. She does not feel that she faces any barriers due to gender, especially in her own company as there is a female managing director. Indeed the company is 'led by strong successful women'. She feels that she is delaying her decision, but once she decides to aim for a board position she should be able to attain one. The kinds of factors that could help her reach a board include guidance from people who are already board members. This could help her to identify 'the right move'. Her skills and confidence and professional experience are also important. By the time she begins to look for a board position she will have accumulated more experience.

Setting Targets: The company collects data on diversity. This helps them identify how they can support and retain staff. Through this monitoring they found they were having some issues retaining females. They responded by introducing 'smart working' (flexible working) options for returning mothers. These proved to be effective ways of helping returning mothers integrate more successfully into the workplace. In the last 5 years since they have introduced this they feel this has helped them to retain staff and it has been 'good for business'.

They have no targets for gender diversity or other protected characteristics as they did not feel that they needed to have targets as analysis of their workforce, management and board suggests that they are achieving parity. If they felt that they had a problem then they would develop targets.

Promting Equality and Diversity and Increasing Gender Parity on the Board

Commitment by the board to improving gender parity: There is strong commitment across the board to achieving gender balance because they feel this will improve the performance of the company. The commitment can be demonstrated through being proactive to increase representation on the board through the external advisory board mentioned above and increasing female candidates for board positions mentioned below. The company's managing director has personal experience of discrimination and became interested in unconscious bias as a result of this. Her experience has been the driver for developing the company's approaches to tackle gender imbalance. This leadership influences both formal and informal practices. To the company informal practices are as important as having written policies in place.

Increasing female board members: Generally they look for board members when they require particular talents or skills. This is determined by regular reviews of the board to ensure they have the right talent to achieve their goals. In the last 5 years the board increased from three people to seven as the company has grown. The company has been proactive about looking for female board members. They have used both internal and external recruitment. Most of the new female members were promoted into the role and so their track record was evident. Others were invited to join the board because they had particular perspectives or skills that the company felt would be useful to have on the board. All of the female candidates had the skills, experience and market expertise required which included being able to work in a team, being a strategic thinker, good people management skills and a good understanding of the commercial environment, sharing the company's values and valuing clients and customer experience. The director interviewed felt there is a tendency for some females to be more critical of themselves than men and find it more difficult to identify their strengths.

The experience of the managing director is pertinent here. She joined the board 4 years ago when she became the managing director. She was interviewed by two women and knew that the then CEO and MD were women and this made the idea of joining the company attractive to her. The main factors that helped her attain a board position were her experience, skills, abilities, values and people‟s belief in her when she was recruited. She has also had a lot of informal support in her career and a mentor who helped her to see her value and strengths. She has also had the benefit of many positive role models to follow.

When she first joined the board she did face some challenges around learning the board‟s 'language', understanding what was expected of her as a board member and around adapting her style of working to that of the board‟s to ensure that her voice was heard. She has gradually learned to overcome these challenges through experience.

Interventions and Supports

The director participates in a range of initiatives that are focused on developing women in the workplace including Women's Enterprise Scotland, Women into Work, strategic groups within the Scottish Government and Changing Chemistry which is a peer support group. She began to be interested in achieving gender balance around 6 years ago when she missed out on a promotion because the person chosen was recruited not on merit but because he was a member of an 'old boys club'. She had not encountered this kind of discrimination before and felt that she wanted to get involved in taking action to counter gender discrimination. These networks have provided her with lots of examples of good practice and allowed her to see the positive impact on the performance of companies which have a diverse senior leadership. She has used this experience in her own company. Her involvement in these networks has also offered her a lot of peer support.

Additionally the director has participated in the Institute of Director‟s mentoring scheme and board shadowing schemes which has helped her increase understanding of boards and how they operate. All of these initiatives have helped her to build her network, which can be useful, in turn to assist other women in business.

Key Points

1. Achieving gender parity is seen as critical to the success of this company, as it helps them to be more entrepreneurial and get closer to their customers.

2. At the moment the board is imbalanced - there are more females than males. However, they still have diversity of thought and an all-round perspective on issues.

3. The company has a number of policies and practices in place to support equality and to support people of all protected characteristics to progress in the company.

4. This case study suggests that the factors that are important to successfully achieving gender balance include having a strong awareness and focus on the issue of diversity and regular review of approaches to achieve diversity. This includes collecting data on diversity to give them an accurate picture of how well they are doing.

5. It is also important to have strong and committed leadership. They feel they have a very forward thinking leadership team who believe that having diversity in the workforce, management and board gives the company a competitive advantage.


Email: Jacqueline Rae

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