Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since the dark ages of HR when companies would quite blatantly state that they did not want to employ a woman who was likely to start a family. 

The reasons for this are multi-faceted, but legislation from the 1970 Equal Pay Act to the 2010 Equality Act and more recently the target set by Lord Davies in his report to get number of women on FTSE 100 boards to 25% by the end of 2015, have all played a part. The pendulum is slowly swinging further and further towards bringing the gender agenda to the forefront.

Indeed, positive steps have already been made by many organisations – for example 2014 saw the last all male FTSE 100 board bite the dust. While we should not underestimate the importance and significance of the momentum that has already been gathered, there is still much work to be done. One only needs to look at PWC’s most recent women in work index to see that while the UK has risen an encouraging four places, it is still only ranked 14th out of 27 countries.  

Sadly, discrimination does still exist and not necessarily just in terms of pay gaps. It is perhaps more subtle these days, but it is still there, bubbling just beneath the surface. Scratch hard enough, and it is easy to see.  It is up to recruiters to push this issue in advising, challenging and educating clients to change mindsets. Those that hide behind saying that employers do not want to support initiatives such as flexible working that can lead to more diverse hiring, are doing the industry, their clients and candidates a disservice.

Of course, encouraging gender diversity in leadership roles is a complex issue and not one that can be rectified overnight. As the 2014 ‘Women on Boards: the voluntary code for executive search firms’ report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills points out, the executive search industry is far from homogenous and there are varying degrees of engagement and motivation in pushing the gender diversity agenda. However, by changing how they approach both clients and candidates I believe recruiters can make a big difference.

Obviously the aim of the game is to find the best and most appropriate candidate for any given role. Evidence suggests that diverse teams make better business decisions and women are clearly an untapped talent pool, so it is up to recruiters to help shape the brief they take from clients to ensure they can entice women. By confronting some of the potential barriers to women – such as flexible working – head on at the start of the process, recruiters can help smooth the path early on, by challenging pre-conceived notions.  As technology is allowing us to become ever more connected, the benefits of flexible working practices will appeal to both genders where they have commitments outside of the workplace. The sooner conversations around gender diversity and working practices can be had with clients, the more recruiters can help clients realise the business benefits of a more diverse workforce.  Good flexible working practice is an employee engagement enabler and should form part of the attraction and retention proposition for current and future employees.

In the same vein, recruiters have a role to play in encouraging women to apply for more leadership roles. As figures from the ‘Room at the Top’ report from the REC demonstrate, women don’t always have the self-belief and confidence needed to go for board level positions. The report found that while 52% of men in senior management expect to make it to executive or board level, only 29% of women in senior management expect the same. The REC report also points out that recruiters need to move away from engaging with female candidates in a purely transactional, short-term way and instead foster longer term relationships that concentrate on the issues that many women have close to their hearts, such as maternity leave and flexible working practices.

Recruiters also need to take into account the very different mindsets that men and women often have in regards to their careers. While men may be more transactional and happy to move roles to suit their ambitions, women are often more loyal and likely to stay with a company that rewards them. By approaching female candidates with a view to helping to guide them through their long-term career development in a way that can still fit in with their priorities, recruiters can help encourage more female candidates to consider moving into leadership and board level roles.

I strongly believe it is well within the recruitment industry’s reach to act as a catalyst for change when it comes to promoting gender diversity. Ultimately, everyone benefits if women rise to the top as more diverse leadership teams make better business decisions and deliver better results. It is up to recruiters from across industries to ensure they are continuously challenging, educating and advising clients and candidates alike to make the promise of gender diversity a reality.

Chris Underwood is Managing Director at executive search and talent advisory business, Adastrum Consulting