Workplace flexibility: the secret weapon for cracking gender diversity in business?

Despite recent UK government efforts to increase the number of women in leadership positions, the pressing need to improve the number of women appointed to boardroom roles remains firmly under the spotlight. And even with the high volume of attention this issue is receiving, British businesses are still struggling to identify and address the factors preventing this from becoming a reality.

Lord Davies has insisted that the UK is stepping up to his call for more women on UK boards, but progress towards a more ubiquitous gender balance on boards is actually slowing, according to the latest report from the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders. While the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards jumped from 11 percent in 2010, to 16 percent in March 2012, research shows that the UK is well short of the 33 percent required to reach Davies’ target of a quarter of board posts being filled by women in 2015.

Through our diversity initiatives, and employee resource groups such as our Women In Search of Excellence (WISE), Dell is a huge proponent of supporting diversity from the top, down, creating an environment where everyone has the opportunity to be successful. At Dell UK, with the three general manager and executive director positions being held by women, we see many advantages of having a diverse board and research has indicated that corporations with one or more women on their boards have higher average returns on equity, better average growth, and higher price value multiples.

In a survey distributed to   Entrepreneur Country’s 35, 000 + member community, we asked participants for their thoughts on boosting the gender ratio. Here are some of the headline findings:

  • Awareness of the gender gap is mixed. The percentage of women on boards is 15.6 percent — something which the majority of our respondents (27 percent) correctly identified from a list of other alternatives. That said, 21 percent thought the figure was just 5 percent, highlighting a need to raise awareness of women in leadership roles –- something vital for inspiring other women to aim high.
  • Improving workplace flexibility will have largest impact. The majority of respondents (33 percent) feel that improving workplace flexibility –- whether in working hours, mobile working, or extending shared parental leaves -– will have the greatest positive impact on encouraging more women into business. But raising the profile of female role models came a close second place (29 percent).
  • Businesses are taking steps to implement programmes for women’s progression. Almost a third of our respondents (32 percent) indicated that they have specific programmes in place to support the career development and progression of women such as: remote working programmes that fit around team member’s schedules; networking groups for female employees; and training and mentoring programmes designed to help women progress into senior roles.

It’s critical that companies of all sizes continue to tackle obstacles for talented women in business by providing them with the support to develop their confidence and aspiration to aim for the boardroom and inspire the next generation before they leave school. One of the sure-fire ways of helping to boost the number of women at the top is for those who’ve made it to the boardroom to bridge the gender gap and help those women on the ladder behind them.

Take Vice-Chairman of West Ham United FC, Karen Brady, for example –- one of the top two most inspiring businesswoman in the UK, according to our poll (with Martha Lane Fox, Digital Champion and chair of Go On UK coming in just ahead). In a recent article for the Guardian, Karen called for women in leadership positions to step up to this challenge, highlighting that, since joining a West Ham FC devoid of women in the boardroom, she’s helped establish an environment where women can balance work and family while aiming for the top. As a result, 50 percent of the board today are women.

Empowering women in business is something close to our heart at Dell, and it’s something we’re striving to achieve through initiatives such as our ‘Powering the Possible’ corporate responsibility programme, which is focused on girls’ education as key to improving prospects for the next generation. We’re also actively engaged with more than 2,000 women leaders worldwide via the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) -– part of our ‘Women Powering Business’ initiative.

This year’s annual DWEN event in Istanbul, Turkey brought together some of the world’s top women in business, from CEOs and founders, to social entrepreneurs, to share best practices and debate the key issues defining the agenda for women in business today. Be sure to check out the videos from several panels at the event.

Did you know that the UK has a much lower ratio of female to male startups (48:100) than the US (71:100) and Australia (85:100)?  For more information, see the full Gender Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index (GEDI) report, supported by Dell and launched at DWEN

About the Author: Sarah Shields