Evidence that targets are tangibly boosting female inclusion on FTSE boards has surfaced in this year’s edition of a major, annual study.

In its opening pages, the latest Female FTSE Board Report from Cranfield School of Management notes that female board membership currently sits at 34.5% in the FTSE 100 and 31.9% in the FTSE 250, putting the FTSE 350 as a whole on track to reach the Hampton-Alexander goal of 33% by the end of the year. (Cranfield School of Management, 24 September 2020)

Analysing how targets have been deployed in this tier of the corporate landscape, the study found that:

•    most FTSE firms have adopted voluntary targets because previous diversity initiatives failed;
•    there has been little resistance in the UK to gender targets, which have become relatively normalised, and
•    despite a general emphasis on realistic goals, firms have sometimes used more ambitious aims as a means of galvanising their HR systems into action – a method that led to positive results even when the stated targets were not fully met.

The report also notes that targets are effective tools for cultural change – but that more work must be done.

Cranfield professor of women and leadership Sue Vinnicombe – the report’s lead author – said: “This year our research establishes that it is not sufficient just to have a critical mass of women non-executive directors on a board in order to increase the number of women in the executive pipeline.”

She stressed: “There need to be women in influential roles such as executive directors. The added dimension of Covid-19 means organisations must be proactive to address the long-term impact of the pandemic on women’s careers. With more focus on flexible working and wellbeing, it is an opportunity to progress the diversity agenda.” (Cranfield School of Management Press Office, 24 September 2020)

Meanwhile, report co-author Elena Doldor – reader in organisational behaviour at Queen Mary University of London – ventured into the most contentious area of debate in this field, saying: “Targets don’t threaten meritocracy, they enable it. Our research indicates that when used ambitiously and systemically, targets can unroot bias across key talent-management processes and contribute to genuine culture change.” 

Is she correct in her assessment that targets support meritocratic decision making?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s chief executive John Mark Williams says: “If we look at Doldor’s specific wording – ‘Targets don’t threaten meritocracy, they enable it’ – there are people who would interpret her use of ‘enable’ to mean ‘force’. And I think that in situations where meritocracy has not been the basis for people’s progress – which is one of the main challenges in diversity and inclusion – then meritocracy does need to be forced.

“By definition, meritocracy is an arena in which people progress on merit. So at the top end of organisations, while there is a view that a measure is a good thing as long as it doesn’t become a target, I would nevertheless be in favour of some pretty clear measures – and some pretty clear targets – for driving diversity and inclusion.”

Williams notes: “There’s a larger point behind all of this. The Cranfield report examines the top end of large organisations: executive and non-executive directors. But for me, the most important issue is not so much the glass ceiling, as the fact that the ladder is broken.

“One of the reasons why we haven’t seen far more women in a position to pitch for senior roles, across organisations of every type, is that the break in the ladder prevents women from moving upwards. In the long term, addressing where the ladder is broken will produce a much more effective diversity and inclusion outcome than focusing solely on the top end.”

Williams adds: “We must also bear in mind how valuable it is that targets-based initiatives open up transparency within organisational processes: what are we really looking for in our senior leaders? Who are we promoting – and why? Transparency is a key function within meritocracy.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity

Source refs:

Cranfield School of Management, 24 September 2020

Cranfield School of Management Press Office, 24 September 2020