The elephant in the room during Lord Davies’ successful efforts to increase the number of women on company boards has been the ongoing lack of executive directors in Britain's top companies. The 25% voluntary target for FTSE 100 firms was achieved last year and now GlaxoSmithKline chairman Sir Philip Hampton will take responsibility for stepping things up a level.
The former RBS and Sainsbury's chairman will aim to increase representation of women at the executive level within FTSE 350 companies. He was appointed by business secretary Sajid Javid to lead an independent review and chose Dame Helen Alexander, chair of UBM, as his deputy chair.
The new review will aim to build on the foundations laid by Davies by improving the pipeline for female executives and non-executive directors. As Javid pointed out, ‘This is not just about diversity for diversity’s sake, but about improving performance and productivity.’
But there have already been some grumblings at Hampton’s selection in the first place and his own firm’s fairly underwhelming record on the very subject of female representation. It does seem a bit odd having another man at the helm of an initiative to get more women into top positions - particularly when just two of GSK’s 12 senior execs are female.
On the relative bright side, four of its 15 board directors are women, which does put it ahead of the 25% target, but really that’s the least you’d hope for. He has been a fairly vocal supporter of improved diversity at the top, but it doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence when Hampton's own company isn't exactly striding ahead on this front.
Cynicism pushed to one side, the review is surely a good step towards tackling another aspect of a multi-faceted problem. It may feel like the discussions surrounding women on boards have been done to death, but most of the women appointed to boards since 2011 have been non-executives; overseeing the decisions made by top executives, but not possessing the same level of influence or input.
Steering clear of compulsory quotas, as Davies advocated, seems a sensible move both to avoid claims of tokenism and to encourage sustainable change. Hampton said focusing on the FTSE 350 would include looking at the talent pipeline ‘to ensure we create opportunities and the right conditions for women to succeed’.
There’s still considerable work to be done by Hampton and Alexander – there are just nine more female executive directors on FTSE 350 boards than in 2010, and visibility matters. Seeing other women in top positions will make it more likely that women will regard a future place on the board as a more normal next step in career trajectory rather than a once in a blue moon appointment.