Blogs / 27 Feb 2021 4 min

Gender targets – a good thing or a bad thing?

In February we saw the release of the final Hampton-Alexander Review on improving gender balance in FTSE leadership, showing women’s representation on FTSE boards and executive committees at an all-time high. In the FTSE100 women now occupy 36.2% of board positions and 30.6% of executive positions [1].

For the last 5 years this review has tracked women’s progress at Board and Executive level, encouraging companies to adopt a voluntary 33% target for representation of women at the top. So are targets a good thing?

The answer to this age-old debate is “it depends”.

On the one hand there are good reasons to consider targets. In almost every area of business we measure objectives. It’s the old adage what gets measured gets done. So why should gender balance – now definitely shown to have quantifiable financial benefits for businesses – be any different? [2]. And when targets are public, it adds a healthy level of competition to spur progress even more. Arguably without the efforts of the Hampton-Alexander Review and its annual public leadership board highlights successful companies (and by implication shaming laggards) the same level of progress wouldn’t have been achieved.

Yet if you ask any woman whether she wants to see targets in her company, most will give a resounding No. Because no woman wants a situation where bystanders might question whether her hard-earned promotion was earned, or whether it was actually a result of a quota system. Similarly, few men are wild about the concept.

Importantly, when targets are implemented in the absence of a wider cultural programme of inclusivity, their effectiveness is significantly limited. Without changing the leadership role modelling and behaviours that set the tone for the organisation, and without addressing the underpinning gender stereotypes and barriers that hinder women’s progression, targets become little more than tokenistic.

At Shape Talent we believe that meaningful progress towards gender equality requires the following:

  1. Link change efforts to the business strategy. Inclusion and diversity efforts are most impactful when viewed as an enabler of business strategy. By making explicit the link between inclusion and diversity and innovation, customer insights, quality of decision making and other strategic imperatives, companies can lay the foundations for a successful change.
  2. Frame the leadership changes required as a business imperative, not a ‘diversity’ initiative. Good leadership matters. It is an imperative for business performance and benefits everyone. So inclusive leadership programme needs to be positioned as a business need, not a diversity ‘nice-to-have’.
  3. Visible senior leadership commitment. If the top team show their commitment to inclusion efforts, through visible and vocal actions as well as words, it sends a very clear message to the rest of the organisation this this needs to be taken seriously.
  4. Engage men. All too often diversity efforts are led by the minority groups most impacted. Engaging male champions is critical: gender equality in the workplace cannot be achieved without the active support of men.
  5. Prioritise efforts and avoid the one-size-fits-all approach. Limited resources need to be directed to the areas that will have the biggest impact. Using the Shape Talent proprietary 3 barriers model we work to diagnose the areas that will make the biggest difference to more gender balanced workplaces and create bespoke solutions which work.


Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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[1] Hampton-Alexander Review 2021:
[2] Gender Equity Insights 2020: Delivering the Business Outcomes:
[3] Shape Talent 3 barriers whitepaper: