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Our Employment Solicitors argue that a woman’s place is on the board

Employment Law Solicitor Lauren Hillier explains that getting more women into senior management roles has been a hot topic recently. Organisations dominated by men have been accused of having institutionally “macho” attitudes, and have been blamed for everything from the financial crisis to complicity in abuse scandals.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether governments should set quotas for female representation on boards; but some organisations are getting ahead of the game and setting their own targets.  

The European Central Bank was in the news recently for announcing its plans to lead the way in getting more women into senior positions. It has set itself targets for female representation at management level to be achieved by 2019. We are still talking baby steps here. The ECB is not aiming for anything like a 50/50 split. Its target for 2019 is that 28% of senior managers and 35% of middle managers should be women. Those figures may sound pretty unambitious, but that would mean doubling the number of female managers at present. So it will require real change.  

Unfortunately what steps the ECB is proposing to take in order to achieve its target have not been reported.  Here are some options that could be considered by any organisation looking to achieve a similar goal:

Set a Target

The ECB have already taken one of the most important steps; it has set itself a target. This is only an internal target; it’s not a government-mandated quota, so there is no real punishment for not reaching it. But the very act of setting a target will concentrate people’s minds on making the necessary changes. And the fact that the ECB has widely publicised its target is significant; it will be asked awkward questions if it does not make sufficient progress. The publicity will help it to become known as a forward-thinking employer and ambitious women, both those already within the ECB and externally, will be encouraged to apply for high-level positions.  

Be Family Friendly

It’s no secret that one of the main barriers to women reaching the very top rung of the career ladder is childcare. Introducing a family-friendly policy that allows Flexible Working for senior managers; reducing their hours or working from home while their children are small, will keep talented women in the organisation even if they choose to have a family. The main goal is not just to introduce a policy on paper, but to foster a culture where women feel confident that they can actually take advantage of these flexible options without putting their careers at risk.

Advertise Senior Positions

With very senior positions, recruitment is often done in a fairly informal way – a reputation within the industry and existing connections with the current management are often very important. This can mean that businesses do not cast their nets widely when looking to recruit at a senior level and they might therefore miss out on many capable candidates. The wider the selection pool for recruitment, the higher the chance that it will contain some talented women who might not otherwise have been considered. By advertising vacancies widely, perhaps even specifically targeting advertisements in media where a lot of women will see them, an organisation will give itself a lot more options. And for long-term change, this has got to happen at every stage of recruitment from graduate level upwards.  


Identifying talented women at the early stages of their careers and appointing a mentor to support them can be extraordinarily effective. The mentor will be able to provide practical advice about gaining the experience necessary to move up the career ladder, and can also bolster the junior employee’s self-confidence so that she can aspire to reach the highest level. Very often, it is senior women who are appointed to act as mentors to younger women, but there is no reason why a man couldn’t perform the same role. In some cases, it might even be preferable; while the top tier of management is dominated by men, promising female candidates need to make connections in male networks, and having a male mentor can really help with this.  

Positive Discrimination

As soon as a business sets a target like this, it does raise the question as to whether male candidates will be unfairly treated, as women are promoted regardless of ability, simply to ensure that the target is met. Would this not give rise to a claim for Sex Discrimination by the overlooked man? Yes it could; if the female candidate really was preferred despite not being up to the job. In the UK, this kind of “positive discrimination” would only be lawful if both candidates were equally qualified for the role. In such a case, a decision has got to be made and one candidate has to be chosen on some basis, and it would be lawful to prefer the female candidate in order to address a problem of women being under-represented.  

We can all put a reminder in our diaries for 2019 to see whether the ECB meets its target. In the meantime, this announcement keeps the issue of women on boards in the public eye, and it might encourage other financial institutions to follow suit. Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England, has already spoken about a long-term strategy for developing female economists coming through the ranks. With the question of enforced quotas still being discussed as a possibility, many more organisations might decide that they want to be take steps to tackle the issue voluntarily rather than wait until they are forced into it.  

By Employment Law Solicitor Lauren Hillier.