Some improvements to the selection process would be relatively simple to make. For instance, having an independent observer sitting in on job interviews could alert the company to unconscious biases, Cemlyn-Jones suggests.
But, in addition to any easy fixes, organisations need to ask tough questions of their talent development and promotion processes, she argues. Consider an oil major or a global engineering company, for instance. The CEOs of such firms tend to have gained broad operational experience in several areas of the business, which is fine on paper. Yet is the expectation on candidates to up sticks and move regularly from posting to posting really fair to women, given its implications for family life and the insecurity of certain overseas roles?
The 25×25 initiative has so far resisted proposing a set framework for companies to follow. Instead, its main request of them is to “continue to question traditional models, which may not be appropriate for the CEO of the future”, says CemlynJones, who adds that target-setting is also vital. Hard objectives can better oil the wheels of institutions and make change more likely. Putting it more bluntly, she says: “If it’s left to chance, we know that nothing happens.”
With this in mind, participating firms are encouraged to set targets for gender balance across the top two or three levels of management.
“It’s very easy for people to say: ‘I looked for a good female candidate and I didn’t find any,’” she notes. “If a senior person then tells them: ‘Look again, this is important,’ they will look again and they will find someone. It happens every time.”
Another 25×25 priority is for existing business leaders to start championing the cause of greater female representation more vocally. At present, a “handful of companies” are pushing this agenda hard, she says. Welcome as that is, if more don’t follow suit, “we will simply end up with the same problem”.
Cemlyn-Jones explains: “If a CEO steps up and says: ‘This is important to me,’ what we find is that proper work then gets done.”
It’s clear that several male CEOs in the FTSE 100 must become prominent cheerleaders for the campaign if it’s to succeed. Having already signed up as ‘lead ambassadors’ for 25×25, it’s an assignment that BP’s Bernard Looney, Unilever’s Alan Jope and BAE Systems’ Charles Woodburn have readily accepted.
So, fast-forward three years and imagine that Cemlyn-Jones’s effort to change the face of leadership in the FTSE 100 has succeeded. What fundamental differences would that make? Perhaps the most obvious impact would be on the sense of opportunity granted to half of the nation’s working population, she says. The more female CEOs there are, the more normal that situation becomes for everyone.
Cemlyn-Jones’s vision is that of a virtuous circle in which “everything seems to work together”: more open doors for talented women, better- balanced leadership teams, happier workers all round and so on. Furthermore, it would mean a more productive private sector in general. By encouraging greater diversity, firms will shake off old habits and start benefiting from an influx of new skills and perspectives.
“We’re doing this because we do actually think [a higher percentage of female CEOs] will deliver better performance,” she says. “If you open up the talent base, you’ll get the skills coming through faster and you can accelerate growth.”
Being a blue-chip CEO is not for everyone, of course. The hours are long, the responsibilities are huge and the expectations are colossal. But everyone should at least have the chance of reaching the top of the tree. That’s only fair – and smart.