Under the title, ‘PR: Women in the Boardroom’, CIPR chair Jane Wilson adeptly directed panellists Alderman Fiona Woolf, City of London Corporation, Heather Jackson, CEO & Founder, An Inspirational Journey, Gay Collins, Executive Chairperson, MHP Communications and Mary Whenman, Incoming Managing Director of Weber Shandwick Corporate, Financial and Public Affairs, and the often spirited audience in a whirlwind discussion. The group covered such diverse topics as childcare (surely a parental issue in a two-parent family, not a women’s issue), quotas (thorny as ever), female mentors and sponsorship, and networking. To that last point, yes, most men would rather go home and have a jacket potato and watch Corrie too, quipped Heather!

As a female-dominated agency operating in the typically male-dominated sectors of financial services, energy, technology, and engineering, the issue of equality gets an airing in the office every once in a while. What struck me last night was that, though the subject was nominally women, most of the discussion actually related to diversity in the boardroom.

Given the purpose of a board, nobody would argue that it should be made up of a group of people shaped by the same background, career and life experiences. But that doesn’t just mean gender-based diversity.

In many ways, the debate has moved on from being about women. While this is a positive step, it’s critical we continue to keep up the pressure on that front. Although the topic is now widely discussed following the Davies Report and the work of the 30% Club and others, the stark truth is that women still only make up 17.3% of FTSE 100 boards, and less still for the FTSE 250. If we can move the discussion on to the broader issue of board diversity, that will go a long way to supporting women’s routes to the boardroom.

Many of the obstacles to increasing the number of women on boards discussed could be applied equally well to this wider issue of diversity; not least, the idea that boards that are primarily made up of very similar people are not necessarily places that people who don’t share that background aspire to be. Also discussed was the issue of workplace (in)flexibility. Although too often aligned solely with women and childcare, workplace flexibility is something increasingly sought by men and women, childless or otherwise as work increasingly becomes defined as ‘something you do, not somewhere you go’. The third key point was around confidence, and although this was cited primarily as a female issue, it stands to reason that mentoring and sponsorship is critical for anyone who might not feel they currently fit the mould of a board member.

So perhaps a more apt title could have been, ‘PR: diversity in the boardroom’. That might at least have encouraged more men to attend, which would have been valuable. Still, the overwhelmingly female audience did make for excellent networking opportunities in the lengthy queue for the Ladies!

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