By Elizabeth Anderson Monday, 17 December 2012

Women directors still struggling to overcome hairdressing and social work stereotypes

The number of female directors has jumped by 240,000 over the past five years - but women are still sticking to the same professions, new research suggests.

There’s been a big push to get more women on boards recently, so news that the number of female directors has risen by almost a quarter of a million in the last five years is a refreshing update.

Figures from Experian show that among 2.7 million businesses surveyed, there’s been a 24% rise in female directors since 2007, compared with an increase of 15% among men. Smaller companies are leading the way in championing diversity, but larger companies are also improving. Half of the UK’s smallest companies (3 to 10 workers) now have a female director. And in companies with more than 250 employees, 40% have at least one woman on the board – up from 33% in 2007.

But the research suggests that there has been little change in the types of profession where women hold a senior position. Hairdressing, primary education and social work have remained the industries with the biggest percentage of all-women boards.

‘The picture is fairly static,’ Experian’s Max Firth said. ‘Whilst there are undoubtedly many women who are breaking new ground and overcoming stereotypes…the industries with most female directors are pretty much the same as before the recession.’

But the real problem lies in the biggest companies, where the percentage of women in the top positions is much lower. Research from the High Pay Centre last week suggested that the number of non-executive women directors has increased, but those in senior management positions across Europe remained stubbornly low.

In the UK, the highly-publicised report by Lord Davies recommended that women make up 25% of FTSE 100 boardroom positions by 2015. We’re still a long way off the mark (the latest figure stands at 17%), although some progress has been made.  But the recent departures of Cynthia Carroll from Anglo American and Marjorie Scardino from Pearson now leaves only two women bosses in the FTSE 100 – Angela Ahrendts at Burberry and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco. While smaller businesses are leading the way in bolstering the number of female directors, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to female representation on the boards of the UK’s biggest companies.

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