Leadership in Manufacturing: Quid pro quotas for women on boards?

Posted on 7 Mar 2012

In March we celebrate International Women’s Day and at TM that means the opportunity to highlight some stellar female careers and contributions to the industry. But deserving of praise as those examples are, why are there still so few of them? Jane Gray considers gender imbalance in manufacturing.

International Women’s Day is now celebrated annually around the world. On March 8, the sector skills council for manufacturing, Semta, has organised a reception at the House of Lords in order to throw the achievements of female manufacturing leaders in Britain into the spotlight.

Carol Burke, Head, Unipart Manufacturing
Carol Burke, head of Unipart Manufacturing

“It is not inevitable, but it is highly likely, that manufacturing will remain male dominated for some time to come” – Carol Burke, Head, Unipart Manufacturing

Semta, among many others has been active in campaigning to attract more young female talent into manufacturing and on p48 you can see a few examples of the kind of high achievers they have encouraged into the industry’s apprenticeship pool. But the attrition rate at junior management level for such bright women is still markedly high and there remain very few senior women in the manufacturing industry – particularly in technical manufacturing and engineering roles.

Does this matter?

Expected later in February is a progress report on Lord Davies’ ‘Women on Boards‘ study that was commissioned by government in August 2010, and published in February last year. Women on Boards revealed the significance of female talent loss to economic performance. The report surveyed the UK FTSE 350 across sectors and found that companies with more women on their boards consistently outperformed companies with male dominated leadership. On average they achieved a 42% higher return in sales, a 66% higher return on invested capital and a 53% higher return on equity.

This reflects recent European data and research released by the not-for profit industrial support body, EngineeringUK, estimated that removing barriers to women in entering males dominated spheres and increasing their participation in the labour market overall could release as much as 2% additional GDP. Not to be sneered at in a time when growth is voraciously sought after.

How to effect change

The latest figures show that FTSE-100 boards in the UK now consist of 15% women and FTSE-250 companies of 9.4% women. This is up from 12.5% and 7.8% respectively from February 2011, though the percentages are far lower for industrial companies.

But the UK has one of the lowest levels of female boardroom representation in Europe and at the current rate of change Lord Davies’ report suggests it will take 70 years to achieve gender balance on the boards of the UKs top 100 companies. With other countries around the world moving much faster, the UK risks leaving itself at a competitive disadvantage given the benefits of gender balance identified above.

The recommendations made by Lord Davies did not suggest formal quotas should be introduced by government to enforce better balance but Prime Minister David Cameron recently caused a furore in the press when he said at the February Stockholm Summit that quotas will not be ruled out by government in order to accelerate change.

Overall, businesses are understandably keen to avoid another layer of bureaucracy, but not all are matching this by responding to recommendations for voluntary change proposed in Women on Boards.

According to a 2011 report from Board Mentoring only 56% of FTSE 100 companies could confirm that they had policies in place to promote boardroom diversity and only 33 of the UKs top 100 have set themselves targets for improved diversity. Furthermore, only 10 of these have set themselves targets to increase the number of board level women by more than 10% – Lord Davies recommended that all FTSE 100s should be targeting 25% female representation by 2015 and that all FTSE 350 companies should have policies and targets in place.

In order to avoid quotas it is clear there needs to be far more widespread commitment to change. The 30% Group is fighting for this through gaining voluntary support from the nation’s leading chairmen to raise awareness about diversity issues. Members of the 30% Group span sectors, but notable industrial figures include: Allan Cook, Atkins; Dr Franz Humer, Diageo and Sir Simon Robertson, Rolls-Royce.

In addition to the work being done by the 30% Group, organisations like Semta are working with companies to demonstrate how mentoring practices can help to reduce attrition rates for female talent. For example, it has recently launched a careers progression programme with engineering support organisation, Babcock, to optimise the career development of 19 female employees.

“This is not just a gender challenge, but a broader diversity issue” – Isobel Pollock, President elect of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers

Isobel Pollock - President elect of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
Isobel Pollock - President Elect of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Glass ceilings and perception issues

Schemes like these are to be praised for their intentions. But are they battling against endemic and inevitable attitudes towards women in what has undeniably always been very much ‘a man’s world’?

Carol Burke is head of Unipart Manufacturing in the UK. An overtly independent and successful engineer and business woman, she has some strong views on approaches to creating gender balance in industry.

“It is not inevitable, but it is highly likely, that manufacturing will remain male dominated for some time to come,” she says. “This not just an issue for manufacturing. Most ‘traditional’ sectors which require high levels of technical qualification and where it has been difficult to create work flexibility are male dominated.”

Furthermore, Mrs Burke states, “There are still glass ceilings – but I do not think this is a peculiarity for female progression. The boardroom is a tough place to get to and a tough place to be. Politics is huge there and board members will look for weakness or difference. When the majority of board members are men this means that a woman will stand out and be positioned in a certain way.”

“This probably shouldn’t be the case,” she continues, “but it is, and if you are a realist you will find ways to overcome it. Quotas would not help.” While stating this, Mrs Burke did continue to state that finding ways around these barriers in order to improve gender ratios is important. “But this is a bigger issue than gender difference,” she says. “The few women at board level do not necessarily act as mentors. There are a whole range of academic studies which show that women in senior positions treat others rising to the top very badly – and I have seen that kind of behaviour personally. Men are far more collegiate.”

For herself, Burke says she has taken help where she can get it and pushed herself forward for every opportunity she has wanted. “You have to be confident in your abilities and, crucially, know how to deal with people,” she says.

And when it comes to recognition, Burke is again reluctant to let gender muddy the water. “I have realised that it is important for me to act as a role model now, but it is not something I am comfortable with. I want my achievements to be recognised for their own worth. Not simply because I am a woman.”

The Talent Gap
The Talent Gap

Broader issues

Of course the prospect of quotas for FTSE companies leaves bigger questions around how to achieve gender balance in the majority business population of SMEs out of scope. It also ignores a question mark over ethnic diversity at the top of UK manufacturing companies.

Isobel Pollock, president elect of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers says this is something of an elephant in the room. “As the manufacturing industry becomes understood as a clean, safe, creative environment with technology very much at its heart, we must ensure that it attracts all kinds of people and that the best stay with our industry to lead it. This is not just a gender challenge. But a broader diversity issue,” she says.