Britain failing to get women on boards

The surge in women NEDs has been dampened by slow growth in executive numbers.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 16 May 2016

Britain’s largest companies are lagging behind the target set by Lord Davies in 2010 for 25% of directors to be women before the general election. There are currently only 263 women directors in FTSE 100 firms, only 23.5% of the total, meaning the target is unlikely to be met.

A closer look at the data shows a more worrying pattern. While 28.5% of FTSE 100 non-executive directors (NEDs) are now women, only 8.6% of executive directors are. At the very highest level, it’s even worse.

Only five of the country’s 100 biggest firms have women CEOs (Véronique Laury at Kingfisher, Moya Greene at Royal Mail, Carolyn McCall at easyJet, Liv Garfield at Severn Trent and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco), and only two have a chairwoman (Susan Kilsby at Shire and Dame Alison Carnwath at Land Securities). This follows research that 43% of firms with a turnover greater than £1bn have no women on their boards at all.

It’s very possible that this inequality at the top is the result of lingering unconscious bias, but there are other factors too. For a start, the rise of women directors has been rapid. In 2010, only 12.6% of board members were women, and in 1999 only 6.9% were. It’s perhaps unsurprising that firms have made the easiest changes first.

Some businesswomen may also have suffered from historic bias, missing those key ‘pipeline’ promotions that put them in contention for the top jobs, not that that makes it much better...

Britain lags behind others, notably France and Scandinavia, in international league tables for board gender diversity, and it might slip further still. Germany, for instance, recently voted a 30% figure into law for its top 100 firms. To put that in perspective, only 23 of the FTSE 100 have reached that level, according to The 30% Club, a group of bosses supporting gender equality.

That group says getting women on boards is ‘now seen as a business issue, rather than a women’s issue’. If anyone needed any more business reasons for diversity at the top, they’d do well to consider recent research by indexer MSCI, which found that firms with more women on boards were less likely to fall victim to ‘governance-related controversies’.

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