Is diversity thriving in British boardrooms?

We've come a long way from the eighties, says diversity director Alick Miskin. But until we start measuring all elements of diversity, from sexual orientation to mental health, we will never know for sure.

by Alick Miskin
Last Updated: 05 Jun 2013

It’s a proven fact that women are still under-represented at board level and it’s an issue that has rumbled on for many years. Now, with the European Commission threatening to introduce tough quotas to increase the number of women in boardrooms, the subject of equality is as relevant as ever.

In February last year Lord Davies published a report recommending that all UK FTSE 100 companies aim for at least 25% female board member representation by 2015. While this is a step in the right direction, women remain under-represented at senior level. Only 15.6% of the FTSE 100 companies have any female directors according to the Cranfield School of Management's March 2012 report. And while there are directorships held by women, overwhelmingly they appear as non-executives. In politics, there's also quite the gender gap. Although the number of women MPs increased after the election to 145, they still represent only 22% of the total.

Equal pay claims with Employment Tribunals are up 500% over the last four years. And with women doing better than men in higher education and moves afoot to allow couples to share maternity leave, gender equality is inching ever closer. Yet, while there are many initiatives to improve aspects of equality and diversity in organisations, relatively few are explicitly targeted at improving boardroom diversity. Where there are, they seem to focus predominantly on gender equality.  

Like gender, age stands out as something that is constantly measured and reported on; every company’s annual report has its key directors, usually standing, looking positive with their ages prominently displayed. The subliminal message is that at the most senior level, a certain ‘maturity’ is required, although interestingly, FDs are typically 10 years younger than CEOs and 15 years younger than chairmen.

Data or visibility of directors’ ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability is more difficult to come by, largely because people are less keen to disclose these characteristics. Where it’s obvious, it can be measured; so we know, according to a 2008 CBI report, that just 4.1% of directors in FTSE 100 companies come from ethnic minority backgrounds and that Parliament has 27 black or Asian MPs. But we don’t know for either group who might have backgrounds other than ‘white, British’, unless they chose to disclose this.

With disability, this lack of visibility is even more apparent. Of all disabilities, dyslexia is the one most publicly acknowledged, with business leaders such as Richard Branson and IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad all demonstrating it is no bar to boardroom success. But mental health conditions, until very recently, remain virtually unknown. Likewise sexual orientation and religion fall into the same category; for most people they are private affairs.

It could be that diversity in the workplace is thriving if not always visible, but in order to know for sure, we need to encourage it at all levels. The population of the UK is diverse and we must ensure than it is well represented in the upper echelons of our largest and most successful organisations.

Alick Miskin is director of Diversity Services at rewards and performance company Grass Roots

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