Women start to crack glass ceiling

Since Wednesday is Women's Enterprise Day, we were glad to see a new study suggesting that more and more women are earning their place at the top table of British business. But with one in four companies still entirely bereft of female directors, there's clearly plenty of room for improvement.

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

This year the number of women holding directorships at FTSE 100 companies reached three figures for the first time, according to the Cranfield School of Management’s Female FTSE report, with 100 women sharing 123 positions between them.

Sadly, that still amounts to a measly 11% of the total number of directorships. And there are still only three companies with female chief executives (Drax, Pearson and Anglo American).

But things do seem to be improving slightly. One in five of all new board appointments last year were female – which may not sound a lot, but it’s the highest proportion since Cranfield started running the survey in 2000. Sainsbury’s and British American Tobacco are leading the way (30% of their board members are women), closely followed by AstraZeneca, British Airways and ITV – although around 25% of companies had none at all.

The other promising news is that there appears to be more women in the talent pipeline just below board level, which bodes well for future appointments. The number of women on executive committees jumped 40% last year to 122 – though again, even with an increase of this size, that’s only 16% of all senior executives.

The report thinks this progress is due to some prominent business leaders championing the cause of gender diversity. But it’s also down to the changing face of the UK boardroom. Non-executive directorships are on the increase, following the Higgs review’s call for greater diversity, and the number of women NEDs has almost doubled in the last seven years (albeit from a low base).

Harriet Harman, the government minister for Women and Equality, insists that British business still need to become more family-friendly. However, that’s never going to happen with men-only boards in charge, she reckons (we think she’s probably speaking from bitter experience of Cabinet meetings here).

For companies, increasing the proportion of female directors is more than just a box-ticking exercise designed to win them brownie points. It will also give them access to a broader array of skills and send out a positive message to those lower down in the chain. So it seems to us like a bit of a no-brainer, really.

Let’s just hope that these men-only boards see it that way, rather than as turkeys voting for Christmas. Because in this day and age, it’s a bit pathetic that women still account for just one in ten of FTSE 100 directors.

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