Diversity in Business: the Token Female?

In the 100 years since the Representation of the People Act was passed, women’s rights is still at the forefront of consciousness, and diversity is clearly the buzzword in the media today. Any media outlet is hot on the topic – newspapers, social media, movies - even award ceremonies. Time’s Up, He for She, Me Too: these are the behaviour-changing movements which are taking flight and shattering the glass ceilings of discrimination. So are we seeing these key trends translate into the real world of today? Is a trending hashtag born in the world of social media actually having an effect on the world of business?

In a world where women make up nearly half of the population, it is possible – likely, even – that women would make up half of the working population – and yet this is still far from the case. One of the big four accountancy firms, PwC, recently published reports that their mean gender pay gap was a staggering 43.8%. Kevin Ellis, Chairman and Senior Partner at PwC, has clarified that ‘we pay our women and men equally for doing the same or equivalent jobs across our business. The issue is one of senior representation.’ This has prompted them to ban all-male shortlists, in an attempt to increase the number of women in senior roles at the firm. PwC are not the only large corporation to publish such overwhelming pay gap figures. The Bank of England report a 25% pay gap; JP Morgan have a median pay gap of 54%; Ryanair revealed a pay gap of 72%; and Apple UK’s median pay gap is 24%.

I am not suggesting that gender polarities are the only category of diversity. We live in a multicultural world, with people of different gender, ethnicity and religion rubbing shoulders every single day, and it is remiss that this isn’t reflected in business. Addressing the gender gap at board level isn’t enough to level the playing field, but it’s a start. A commonly cited excuse is the lack of qualified and experienced women in corporate life. This is an outdated excuse and, frankly, no longer cuts the mustard. There are now a record 309 women on FTSE 100 boards, with a quarter of FTSE 350 board positions now filled by women[1] and targets to have a third of FTSE 100 board positions filled by women by 2020. With diversity included in a company’s positioning and planning strategy, there is no reason that we can’t see that target achieved.

That is not to say that challenging diversity is a tick-box exercise. It is not enough simply to shoe-horn a woman onto the board of a company and consider the job done. So, we come to the elephant in the room: tokenism. Is it true that by having one female on the board of a company there is the danger of assuming that she is the ‘token female’, and that her view is a ‘woman’s point of view’? There are copious amounts of research to suggest that companies benefit from having a diverse workforce from more than a financial standpoint. As stated in McKinsey’s report Diversity Matters, ‘the most important drivers identified were advantages in recruiting the best talent, stronger customer orientation, increased employee satisfaction, and improved decision making.’[2]

Part of the benefit a search firm can bring is ensuring that shortlists are inclusive and reflective of diversity. It is vital that hiring professionals do not take a narrow view of what constitutes diversity, working to provide clients with a broad spectrum of talent which will bring a much-needed range of opinion to the board room. In broadening one’s own network, and developing relationships with diverse candidates, a hiring professional shows commitment to closing the gap between men and women at board level. Having a wealth of information about candidates readily available and easily accessible within a database is key to making sure that this happens.

Tackling the lack of diversity with a long-term plan is key. Increasingly, there is a trend in companies creating stretch opportunities for women at earlier stages at a more junior level. Making a conscious effort to hire more women at a lower level in the company ensures that there is a valued talent pool from which to hire internally. If all companies moved towards this balance, it would have the knock-on effect of ensuring that a greater number of women have the experience required to assume a position at board-level across different companies.

Having achieved adequate gender diversity, a company then needs to consider a long-term positioning strategy in order to ensure that employees feel valued, and wish to remain within the company. Africa Zanella, the CEO of the Centre for Sustainability and Gender Economics and senior consultant to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, comments that ‘a company that has invested in a young female employee for years doesn’t want to lose that investment when she chooses to become a mother.’[3] It isn’t just about the financial remuneration for women; it is about understanding the motivation for women in a wider sense. Benefits such as flexible working hours and the ability to work from home are as important as financial reward, and help working mothers feel valued upon their return to the workplace. Building a focus on people and their individual requirements is vital to ensuring the happiness and wellbeing of employees, helping to prolong retention levels.


[1] Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Andrew Griffiths MP, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/record-number-of-women-on-ftse-100-boards

[2] McKinsey, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/business%20functions/organization/our%20insights/why%20diversity%20matters/diversity%20matters.ashx

[3] Africa Zanella, quoted in AESC, https://www.aesc.org/insights/magazine/article/times-dismantling-barriers-gender-parity-c-suite