The CBI wants all companies to disclose their targets for promoting women and then report on their progress.

They claim a similar scheme in Australia has already resulted in a 27% rise in female appointments. The CBI proposal is part of their submission to the government-sponsored review of women in board rooms.

I can’t explain the sudden rise in the appointment of women to senior posts in Australia but the experience of the public sector in this country is that setting targets and publishing progress has not made a dramatic difference. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently published a major report that concludes that while attitudes to race, gender and sexuality have changed significantly, inequality persists. Women are still paid less than men, black people are still underrepresented in the top jobs and people with a disability struggle to get any kind of paid employment (How fair is Britain?) This prompts the question: in this harsh financial climate is it going to be even harder for women to get senior management posts?

There is already evidence that women lose out in management restructurings designed to cut costs and reduce the number of management posts.

In filling management posts in new structures there is a real risk that the unofficial criteria will be “commitment”. In other words, those who are prepared to put in the long hours to cover the reduced number of posts? This sort of thinking leads to discrimination against women who have family commitments such as young children or an elderly relative, it can makes it less likely that posts will be considered for job share and it may also reinforce a macho management culture which turns women off.

The increased pressure on managers may result in them being less prepared to give up time to mentor others, yet we know that mentoring is one of the most effective ways of encouraging and supporting people from under-represented groups into senior management. Development opportunities for aspiring managers are unlikely to be considered essential in a harsh financial climate where the training budget is an easy target.

It will take more than disclosing targets and reporting progress to get a gender balance at the top of most organisations.