Women on boards is a business imperative

Alex Chisholm

Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary, BEIS

As POWERful Women turns three, the man in charge of the department responsible for energy commits to reaching parity between men and women within his senior ranks by 2025 and calls for more change in the sector’s boardrooms.

When I first joined the civil service over 25 years ago my boss was a woman, her boss was a woman, and her boss’s boss was a woman too. In the early 1990s, this was unusual even in the civil service. In the present day, would anyone find that notable? In the modern civil service, probably not. But in the energy sector? Yes, even today. Very unusual.

Since government and business launched the Women on Boards initiative in 2011, the percentage of female directors in the FTSE 100 has more than doubled from 12.5% to 27.3%.

Unfortunately, research undertaken by POWERful Women and PwC shows us that very little has changed in the UK energy sector, which continues to lag behind at 9%.

PWCs ‘Igniting Change 2’ report shows us that only 6% of UK energy firms sampled had female executive board members (it was previously 5%), which is a fifth of POWERful Women’s executive board level target of 30% by 2030. The proportion of female board executives across key energy sectors also remained unchanged (nuclear at 8%, oil and gas at 7%) with the exception of power and utilities which has risen by 1% to 18%.

Energy companies are clearly some of the worst offenders.

That’s why it’s so important that organisations like POWERful Women exist and I salute the other movers and shakers behind this network. Independent accountability, bringing together research and best practice, is central to creating change.

I am sure for most people this is a moral and social imperative. But it is also a business one.

The McKinsey ‘Diversity Matters’ report, proves that diverse organisations perform better. A bigger talent pool, improved employee engagement, improved understanding of customer base, improved decision-making and problem-solving.

Within the civil service we understand how important it is to reflect the public we serve. The civil service is 54% women and four departments are 50:50. But overall only 40% of Senior Civil Servants are women. This is why it is a focus area for us and my department has pledged to reach 50% women in the senior civil service by 2025.

We will achieve this upturn in diversity by continuing to focus on areas such as improving recruitment practices (for example, no all-male interview panels), targeted talent schemes, mentoring and reverse mentoring and ensuring development opportunities are based on merit.

Finally, to the two most important groups involved in this battle for change.

To aspiring women in energy – this is your sector, your organisation, your project. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities, we need you here. If there are things that need to be changed, be a part of that change. It’s never easy to challenge the status quo but there are people out there who will help you. Get a mentor, get a sponsor too – someone to advocate for you. Take the development opportunities that are offered to you.

And of course, leave the ladder down. Make sure that’s a ladder that can be climbed by every type of woman.

To those in charge of energy companies – this isn’t easy, it takes a lot of sustained effort and it doesn’t happen without being brave. Women are 50% of the population, and not only deserve to represent 50% of your business at all levels, but need to be there in order for you to be the best that you can be.

If you are a leader of an energy company taking steps on women’s equality and facing some challenges – I applaud you. If you’re lagging behind – buck up! This is a priority for every progressive leader today.

Your workforce, your customers and your peers are watching. This matters to them as it should to you.

This blog post is based on a speech given by Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at the POWERful Women 3rd Anniversary Reception at the House of Lords on 15 June 2017.

Read more about POWERful Women here: www.powerfulwomen.org.uk

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