Women in the UK have much to celebrate this May. Following unpredictable election results, we now have more women MPs than ever before.  Coupled with 20.7% of board seats in the FTSE 100 being held by women, we seem to be enjoying a more egalitarian position than ever before.

Progress over the last few years has been substantial, but we still have a long way to go to achieve parity. Only 6.9% of the board seats held by women in the FTSE 100 are executive positions. Simply put, women’s representation in the board room and in senior management is still token. We need more women holding direct responsibility for British business. We are still very, very far from the tipping point of 30% of women in management roles that will effect sustainable change.

RBS recently committed to filling 30% of its 600 management roles with women within the next five years. The bank should be applauded for its ambition to move beyond the low hanging fruit and tackle the more difficult task of placing more women in management. RBS will face challenges both structural and cultural, but these can be overcome with commitment, pragmatic solutions and sponsorship from the board and executive committee. Addressing organisational and societal structures and frameworks, as well as cultural barriers can be changed through various programs and tend to reduce significantly when tokenism is eradicated.  Perhaps the most critical issue RBS will have will be one of the most common reasons our clients cite for not having more women in the executive office: there just aren’t enough suitably qualified women to fill the roles. It is true that there is a limited pipeline of women candidates who have similar and direct pathways up the corporate ladder as most men in management. However, companies that are creative and flexible in their approach may be surprised to discover a large talent pool of qualified and experienced women to do the jobs at hand. Unless specific product knowledge or specialist expertise is required, there is a wealth of women who are experienced at and capable of running P&L’s and businesses. I am reminded of something Stephen Lewis, ex Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa for the UN, said a few years ago at a talk he gave in London. At the time, UN women was in its inception and there was a search for someone to lead the new organisation. Mr Lewis said that his colleagues were only considering male candidates for the role because there wasn’t a single women on the planet who could do the job. As it turns out, the UN found an outstanding woman of experience and stature in Michelle Bachelet to lead the newly formed body. UN Women is facing a similar challenge as it looks to replace Phumzile Mlambu-Ngcuka in 2015. I digress. The point I am making is that the pipeline of skilled and qualified women is not dry. There is an ocean of women who have the ability and skills to lead business. The trick is to find them by being creative and using a rigorous process that minimizes bias.

So, where are the women who can do these jobs? Companies like RBS have a number of candidate pools available to them. The first and most obvious is to grow their own talent so that in five years time there is an internal pool of women from which to recruit into management. This requires sponsorship programs, mentorship programs, flexible maternity and paternity arrangements, addressing the gender pay gap as well as a number of other interventions.

In the short term, companies will need to recruit from external sources. Success will come through various routes. One is tapping into the current pool of managers who are women. According to the Office for National Statistics, across all industries, the percentage of managers who are women in the UK is over 33%. Business will also have to be creative about searching for candidates across industries, as well as for those who have followed a non-linear career path, as many highly qualified and successful women do. This will require using  a research oriented approach to recruitment and assessing candidates against a well-crafted framework to reduce bias through each step of the process.  Enrolling new joiners into mentorship and sponsorship programs will be key to retaining and developing women managers going forward.

In the UK, the number of women in executive positions in the FTSE 100 has decreased in the last few years. With the potential threat of quotas and a clear case for tapping the unsourced 50% of management talent, businesses  that tackle the dearth of women in management in a pragmatic and focused way will have the competitive edge over those that do not.