Lack of women in top British corporate roles persists, study shows

Women are still struggling to break into the top corporate roles, including chair and chief executive, despite gaining more seats in UK boardrooms, new research shows.

While companies across the FTSE 350 are on track to meet a target of at least 33% of boardroom seats held by women by December 2020, fewer women are holding the most powerful positions at UK-listed companies.

The target was set by the Hampton-Alexander Review, a body set up to boost the representation of women at the highest corporate levels.

The annual Female FTSE Board Report – conducted by Cranfield University and sponsored by EY – shows women have made the greatest progress in non-executive director roles, occupying 324 or 40.8% of those positions on the FTSE 100.

While that is an all-time high and marks an increase from 38.9% a year earlier, it is in stark contrast to the number of women holding executive roles which still only totals 31 positions, or 13.2%. The number of women chairing FTSE 100 firms has increased from just five to eight over the past year.

There were just five female chief executives at the helm of FTSE 100 firms by the report’s cut-off date in June, including NatWest Group’s Alison Rose, Severn Trent’s Liv Garfield, and GSK’s Emma Walmsley. The report also counted Legal & General Group’s Michelle Sylvia Scrimgeour, who heads up its investment management division.

ITV’s Carolyn McCall took the fifth spot, but the company was relegated from the FTSE 100 earlier this month, reducing the number of female bosses heading up blue chip companies to four.

Across the FTSE 250, women now make up 37.6% or 573 of part-time non-executive roles, but just 47 or 11.3% of full-time executive positions. Only six women serve as chief executive. “It is disappointing to see that women are not making much progress into these vital executive roles,” the report said.

Sue Vinnicombe, a professor at Cranfield University and the report’s lead author said: “It is not sufficient just to have a critical mass of women non-executive directors on a board in order to increase the number of women in the executive pipeline. There need to be women in influential roles such as executive directors.

“The added dimension of Covid-19 means organisations must be proactive to address the long-term impact of the pandemic on women’s careers. With more focus on flexible working and wellbeing, it is an opportunity to progress the diversity agenda.”

The report, which has been released annually since 1999, also reviewed the use and impact of gender diversity targets, which have become “relatively normalised” in the UK.

It found that targets were an effective tool for cultural change, helping to invite scrutiny and unroot bias embedded in the recruitment process.

In some cases, more ambitious targets also helped push companies into action, even if those targets were not fully met by their deadline.

Alison Kay, a managing partner at EY UK & Ireland, said: “There is no doubt that targets have helped to improve diversity on UK boards, by setting a clear vision and keeping organisations on track.

“However, as outlined in the report, targets must be coupled with action on cultural change to accelerate progress for future generations and spark a positive ripple effect that extends into the wider economy and society.”


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