Women make up less than a quarter of UK boardrooms

The number of female boards members is on the rise but still a long way from achieving equality with men

Female Boss Addressing Meeting Around Boardroom Table
The overall percentage of women at the top table is around 22% but 16% of companies have no female board members at all. Photograph: Alamy

Despite the fears of Tesco chair John Allan that men are becoming an “endangered species” in boardrooms, the majority of UK company directors are still male and pale.

And while women’s presence in the boardroom has grown over the past four years, according to our research at the Directory of Social Change, their positions tend to be non-executive and it’s still a rare company that has a female chair or CEO.

By looking at company CSR policies and annual reports we were able to determine the ratio between women and men for 399 corporate boards. Analysis of the data shows that the overall percentage of women on boards was around 22%.

The good news is that this is higher than the figure produced by a similar research exercise in 2013, when the overall percentage of women on boards was just 13%.

The bad news, however, is that 16% of companies in the 2017 research sample had no female board members at all. Although this marks progress since 2013, when the figure was 33%, it is astonishing that so many boards continue to exclude women entirely.

Companies with equal numbers of female and male directors, or with female-led boards, were rare at not quite 4%, not much higher than the 2% found in 2013.

The six companies that were female-led included a co-operative, a pharmaceutical group, a manufacturing company, an electronics company, an engineering firm and an information technology service provider.

This list undermines the lazy claim from so many businesses that recruiting women to boards or senior management is too difficult in certain sectors, especially IT, science and engineering.

One of those six companies, Renishaw plc, for example, an engineering company with 70% women on its board, runs an engagement programme with schools, universities and the government to overcome the stereotypes and discrimination preventing more women from working in Stem sectors.

“What our industry needs is a cultural shift to help shatter outmoded stereotypes,” the company’s chair, David Roberts McMurtry, wrote in an open letter. “Engineering does not equal manual labour … Engineering is not only for men; it welcomes people from both genders, all ethnic backgrounds, and any walk of life.”

It has been encouraging to see some companies voluntarily meet the targets (pdf) recommended by the government six years ago, which included asking FTSE 100 boards to aim for a minimum of 25% female representation by 2015. Almost 44% of the 399 companies researched had achieved this figure by the time of our study.

However, less than a third (29%) had three or more women on their boards. This is significant because research(pdf) indicates this is the point at which women start being able to make a significant difference to corporate governance structure and decision-making.

There will always be a risk of tokenism if there is only one woman on a board whereas when there are three or more they have a normalising effect, and are seen as individuals rather than through a gendered lens. This negates any attempt to dismiss a solitary woman’s opinion as “a woman’s perspective”.

Although quite what is wrong with a woman’s perspective when women account for around half of all people, and often a higher percentage of a company’s customer base, is never made clear.

© 2017, sheconquers. All rights reserved.

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