Will executive search code help to address to gender imbalance?

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Vince Cable has announced the introduction of an Enhanced Code of Conduct for executive search firms in a bid to get more women appointed to the board of FTSE 350 companies.

However, there are questions as to whether the new rules will be effective in addressing the gender imbalance at the top table.

With the spotlight recently falling on the disparity between male and female contractor numbers in sectors like oil and gas, there will certainly be much interest in how the code will affect businesses from the top down.

When the original version of the code was launched in 2011, over 70 firms signed up. However, following the February 2014 Sweeney review, the search industry developed a new code, which recognises those firms most successful in recruiting women to the board.

Under the new provisions companies must prove they have supported the appointment of at least four women to FTSE 100/250 boards over the last year.

Organisations are also required to achieve at least 33 per cent of female appointments across all their FTSE 100/250 board work, while supporting women to achieve their first FTSE 350 board appointment.

What's more, businesses must fully deliver against more qualitative aspects of the Enhanced Code in their daily practices.

Kate Shoesmith, head of policy at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), claims that the code is a "step in the right direction" but questions how it will perform in practice.

"It sets a number of challenging targets for executive search firms which won’t be achievable without the endorsement and co-operation of their FTSE 350 clients. We know that there is still a lack of understanding about the executive search process and what ‘good’ looks like," she said.

"We made a strong recommendation earlier this year that the gender balance of long and shortlists should be published so that executive search firms who consistently put forward balanced shortlists can be recognised, even when the client may not ultimately choose to hire women."

The REC will work to raise awareness of the advanced code to encourage organisations to challenge biases and support businesses to improve gender equality.

"At a time when skills and talent are in high demand, employers cannot afford to miss out by not accessing the widest talent pools," Ms Shoesmith explained.

Part of ensuring more women can reach the top in the workplace, be they permanent or contractor workers, is offering more flexible working arrangements. This enables females to better balance all the different aspects of their life. What's more, women in the oil and gas sector have recently claimed that access to mentoring would help them improve professionally.

Nevertheless, the contractor life is generally more appealing for women, as it allows them to choose how and when they work.

Last year a Freedom of Information request from Brookson showed that the number of female sole traders, for example, had increased by 21 per cent over the five years to 2013.

London saw the greatest growth, with female sole traders growing by 22 per cent since 2008.

By Victoria McDonnell

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