We can't get complacent about women on boards

Without the spotlight on hitting Lord Davies' targets, progress seems to be stalling.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 07 Jul 2016

While there's been a great deal of political turbulence of late, one positive has been clear; more women leaders coming to the fore. There’s the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon of course, and Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom both have an eye on the keys to Number 10.  Angela Merkel’s still the most powerful politician in Europe and Hillary Clinton could soon become America’s first female president.

If only such progress and visibility was clear in the world of business. Despite the talk – and there has been a lot of talk – the effort to ramp up the numbers of women in Britain’s boardrooms seems to have stalled, according to the latest Women on Boards report. Over the past six months, the proportion of new appointments going to women has dropped to a five-year low.

It’s not as if we’re going backwards – Lord Davies’ final report on gender diversity in October last year showed women holding 26.1% of FTSE 100 board positions, and as of June that’s still the case. But there are warning signs that we can’t take our foot off the gas. Only 24.7% of new roles filled between September and March went to women, the number of FTSE 100 firms with female executive directors fell from 22 last year to 20 and 15 boards in the FTSE 350 are still all-male. ‘Without a concerted effort and a regular spotlight on the figures, we risk inertia setting in and a return to the years of incremental increases,’ the report said.

And Sir Philip Hampton, chair of the Women on Boards review, said part of the reason there’d been a halt in progress was due to the government’s aim to avoid distractions during the Brexit campaign. That panned out so well.

This now means there’s going to have to be more of a concerted effort to hit the latest target of women making up 33% of board positions on FTSE 350 firms by 2020. And it also points to a downside of having targets in the first place – once they’re hit companies may assume it’s mission complete, rather than viewing them as stepping stones to further progress and lasting change. Similarly, some firms look at the quickest way to reaching targets; often appointing women to non-exec positions, meaning there’s still a dearth of females in exec positions, where they’d be more influential.

To keep progress going companies can’t be complacent and nor should they be viewing their board make-up as a tick box exercise. As well as building the pipeline of female talent within business, efforts need to be refreshed by reflecting on what positives have come from taking action so far - and the difference a more diverse board has made to businesses. Using these as incentives can spur on companies to make even more progress in the future.

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