As we approach the first anniversary of the Davies Report – which set out ambitious targets for UK listed companies in the FTSE 100 to aim for a minimum of 25% female board member representation by 2015 “ the question on many people’s minds is “Has it had any impact on eradicating the glass ceiling”? Perhaps it is too soon to tell, but it appears little progress has in fact been made.

According to recent statistics in the Financial Times, the number of women executive directors has fallen from 45 in 2010 to 43 in 2011; the number of FTSE 100 boards with no female representation has remained at 84, and the number of FTSE 250 with no women on the board has fallen from 227 to 226. Whilst the there has been some change, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott, describes the situation aptly commenting “Any change is [happening] at a snail’s pace and “British business still picks its bosses from an incredibly incestuous male gene pool”.

Clearly more works needs to be done over the next few years, and whilst a year in we might not have seen the change many hoped for, it is perhaps wise to concentrate on what more can be done to truly shatter the glass ceiling. I am personally not in favour of imposed quotas that have been introduced in other countries. Norway, for example, has led the way in increasing its female board representation through government imposed quotas. But if the UK is to increase female representation without quotas, the obvious solution is through softer targets as detailed in the Davies Report.

However, targets are not enough on their own, and no female wants to feel they are climbing the career ladder because their own organisation needs to meet them. Businesses need to be addressing the issue and instigating change regardless of external pressures. So what role do HR departments play, and what can they do to kick start change?

Current HR professionals ought to be firmly behind the business case for diversity. More needs to be done to highlight and celebrate the positive effect women board members have on their own organisation. And only when a business, and all its staff understand and support a diverse team, will we start to see real change. And at the core of any business, HR is perfectly placed to spearhead that change.

Clearly, the motherhood penalty is another issue that has affected many women. If females are to realistically reach board level, the motherhood penalty needs to be eradicated once and for all. Employers must take further steps to ensure women who take a career break are not only supported and encouraged to return to work, but that they are also not left feeling that they have to make a choice between a family, or a high flying career. The two are not mutually exclusive and HR departments need to be doing more to foster this belief throughout their whole organisation.

HR departments also need to take into account that a “one size fits all” approach to policy is a thing of the past, and it this belief that may restrict and ultimately cost a company some of its strong female talent. Flexible working practices should not only be addressed on an individual basis, but they should also be open to all employees regardless of gender. This will also work towards removing any stigma or belief that flexible workers put in any less effort, therefore removing this as a factor in decisions about promotions. Only when this ethos is embedded in a business will women – who wish to succeed in their career, whilst not sacrificing personal commitments – start to make real steps up the career ladder.

Even though the Davies Report doesn’t look as if it has had any real impact on removing the UKs glass ceiling, it has certainly encouraged debate about the subject. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens over the next few years, but it is my belief that with or without targets, businesses and their current employees need to be driving force behind long term, meaningful change.


About Maggie Berry