A recent survey of FTSE350 boards has found that they have become more diverse in terms of gender. In fact, results suggest that nearly half of first time appointments were women (47%) – up by 36% since 2007. But does this mean that progress is being made when it comes to tackling diversity in the boardroom, or do these figures simply mask an underlying problem?

On the surface, the findings suggest that we’re seeing real optimism when it comes to tackling diversity. Companies are recognising that, in order to bring in new skills and compete with rival firms, they need to have a diverse workforce. And it’s great to hear of examples where this has been successfully incorporated into the recruitment process. However, there’s a real danger in placing too much focus on ‘ticking the diversity box’ when it comes to sourcing talent and forgetting about the importance of skills and experiences.

The study found, for example, that the increase in the number of women in senior positions may actually have been to the detriment of executive experience. In 2007, for instance, 46% of first-time NED appointments had executive director experience, but this fell by 17% in 2012. And, only 11% of these individuals had sat on a FTSE350 executive board, compared to 25% in 2007.

It’s important to get the balance right and ensure that everyone in your organisation is aware that diversity is about so much more than simply head count at board level. If you hire an individual for a role just because of their gender, age, ethnicity etc., you will not be benefitting your company – or the individual – and it won’t help to solve the overall challenges. The answer isn’t just to recruit more females into senior positions because of quotas – this isn’t sustainable. So how can we overcome the diversity barriers?

In order to have a truly diverse workforce, businesses need to be thinking about addressing engagement and exclusivity. Without engagement across the company and indeed with external talent pools, diversity will have little effect on an organisation. And in order to achieve this, there can often be an element of cultural change required. HR teams have a responsibility in ensuring that business leaders and senior decision makers are educated so that they really understand what it means for a company. And it can help if they’re able to experience theimpact exclusion can have on both employees and the company first-hand.

By means of example, I would like to reference an interesting case study of a leading telecommunications organisation we work with. The company’s marketing and business development teams carried out a series of video interviews with a number of current and potential customers on the high street to gather their views on the service at a number of stores. The results proved interesting. While the business aims to stay ahead of the competition in terms of digital advancement, it appeared that by employing a large number of younger staff, the company was excluding the older demographic. It was only upon playing these interviews to the senior team that the impact exclusion of this target audience was having on the organisation was truly recognised.

When it comes to sourcing talent, it’s clear that diversity needs to be approached in the right way. It shouldn’t be the sole reason to hire someone – you still need to look at overall experiences and skills in order to hire the best talent. And it’s important that, to really get it right, HR professionals help to drive the message to key stakeholders.

About Helena Parry