Against a backdrop of females surpassing males in undergraduate degrees, some professional qualifications (e.g. law & medicine) and most recently post graduate degrees, progress at the board level has come to a standstill both in the US and the UK. According to the non-profit Catalyst, women make up only 15.7% of board members for the “major league” (Fortune 500 companies) and most disappointingly this has barely changed since 2008. In the UK the numbers are equally bleak with women only representing 12.5% of board directors for the top 100 UK public companies.

In this week’s Financial Times “Woman At The Top” series, there seems to be a glimmer of hope, or is it? Women that do hold board directorships are almost twice as likely to be invited to other boards – these women have earned the title of “Golden Skirts”. Does this achieve the diversity we were hoping for? Even Norway’s 2003 law, mandating that 40% of board directorships must be female, resulted in a class of women having multiple board positions.

So what’s the answer to creating more diversity on boards? If we take the UK as an example, the argument that there are just not enough qualified women out there doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. Cranfield University has identified talented women in the FTSE 350 ‘pipeline’ – women in senior executive positions, sitting just below the corporate boards in the FTSE 350 companies. Women in this category are the undiscovered “silver and bronze skirts” who should be going for gold!

Cranfield maintains that there are 342 qualified women, including the 29 female executive directors of the FTSE 250. This is an enormous talent pool. The challenge seems to be gaining wider recognition of this untapped resource. The majority of search firms do “same ol’, same ol’, and therefore get “same ol’, same ol’”. They continue to follow old search methods, reluctant to sponsor women (and men?) who have not previously held a FTSE non-executive position. Chairmen play a key role in forcing a change in the recruitment and selection process in order to connect these experienced women to future directorships, resulting in true diversity.

In addition to tapping into the FTSE 350 pipeline, the selection process also needs to consider qualified candidates who may not have direct board experience, but do have relevant personal and professional experience: talent within the entrepreneurial sector, professional service firms as well as the voluntary sector. Recent history has shown that awareness of a company’s broader context (the environment, the wider community, customers and employees) is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but rather front, right and center to a sustainable business, well positioned to enhance and preserve its reputation.

Women are generally more aware of the wider responsibilities and motivated by the purpose of business (what role/contribution is it making to society). This could be due in part to their traditional care giving roles as well as the trade-offs they make between work and family. If you’re going to be at work, you want it to count! For many consumer companies (operating in a market where 80% of purchase decisions are made by women), increasing female board representation seems like an obvious strategy for improving business performance.

In determining the criteria for selecting board members, certainly the focus should be on what criteria is necessary for getting the job done – strategic vision and courage to speak one’s opinion (in a professional manner) in the face of adversity, rather than sticking to criteria that was created for a different time and place (knowing the right people?) I’ll take any bit of good news when it comes to improving the gender balance of businesses, so I welcome the golden skirts, but look forward to the silver and bronze skirts joining the ranks.

Author's Bio: 

Christine Brown-Quinn, The Female Capitalist (TM), offers professional women innovative and refreshing ways to enjoy their career-family lifestyle. She also offers businesses the opportunity to improve bottom-line performance through gender diversity.