Why Are There So Few Women-Led Executive Boards in the UK?

Elmira TanatarovaFeatures
Why are there so few women-led executive boards in the UK

The Org explores why are there so few women-led executive boards in the UK. Image Source: Unsplash.

Getting more women into boardrooms is not a new initiative - the benefits of hiring women, both in a move towards gender equality and for the triple bottom line - have been rehashed over and over again. Every crack made in the glass ceiling pays - so why are there still so few women, especially in executive positions, in boardrooms in the U.K.?

The Hampton Alexander Report (HA), released last week, shows there are only 17 female CEOs in the FTSE 350 - less than 5%. The proportion of women who are registered directors make up just 14% of the key C-Suite registered board positions.

The HA was set up five years ago, by Philip Hampton, who is a GlaxoSmithKline chair, and Helen Alexander, the former president of business association the CBI. The independent review body’s aim is to increase the representation of women at board level and across leadership positions, working on a voluntary business-led approach.

And as of February 16, only 21.5% of FTSE 350 Executive Committee positions were held by women, research by The 30% Group revealed. To add to this, just 4% of FTSE 100 board positions are held by women of colour - this fell to 2-3% across the smaller indexes.

The Org spoke to experts on the field on why there aren’t more women in the British C-suite - and why it matters.

Influence network Women on Boards UK helps women secure board positions. CEO Fiona Hathorn explains a part of the problem is that while the quantifiable research on the benefits of having women in corporate governance positions is there and available, it is rarely used as a roadmap, and companies are not encouraged, nor enforced, to use it.

“The HA review's success only goes to prove how vital scrutiny and measurement is yet this regular review is about to be stopped by our current government,” Hathorn says. “Women on Boards UK have always said we don't like quotas, but we like the results they achieve. We now know the UK can achieve and maintain those same results with measurement and scrutiny, so why are we about to stop doing it?”

Not to mention, while it’s valid to celebrate the HA review and its impact on the UK, it’s important to look beyond headline figures. When it was started in 2016, only a quarter (25%) in the FTSE 100 and FTSE 350 boardrooms were female. By the end of last year, the UK’s largest 350 listed companies’ boards were at least 33% female on average.

It’s an impressive, and doted on, statistic, but less discussed is the 37% of FTSE 350 companies which haven’t hit the 33% mark for women on boards nor the 70% who haven’t hit the 33% mark for women in leadership positions.

Hathorn also adds that the myopic goal of women-led boards often comes at the expense of promoting intersectionality, as it singles out one specific demographic within a broader call for diversification.

“We can aim higher, to truly untap the benefits of the rich diversity of the UK for our economy. Progress on ethnic diversity has been slower, and meeting the Parker Review target (for one 'director of colour' on each FTSE350 board, currently 2/3 meet this) is looking less likely by the day.”

Fiona Hathorn (credit Women on Boards UK website)

Fiona Hathorn, CEO of Women on Boards UK. Image Source: Twitter.

According to Dr. Scarlett Brown, Policy Adviser at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), issues also lie with the way the problem is presented. We may grieve the lack of female executives on boards, but don’t do enough to consider the issue systemically.

“There has been lots of talk and research about women on boards but lots of it focuses on 'body counting'. We became so focused on counting women we had, and didn't spend enough time thinking about how they were recruited, or what kind of roles they had,” explained Dr. Brown.

While non-executive directors, which women are often placed into on boards, are hugely important to the company, it is much “more significant for gender diversity to have women holding top executive positions.”

A problem with just counting the number of women on boards is that you don't see the problem in the process, Dr. Brown adds.

Boardroom politics relies a lot on connections, often at the expense of hiring the best or most competent candidate - which in itself seeps into the problem.

“My research found that during the time we were recruiting more women than ever before to UK boards, the way they were recruited didn't change. There was still a narrow focus on very specific kinds of women,” Dr. Brown explains. “Board recruitment still relies on 'who you know.' We didn't see much diversity, just a lot more women.”

She explains that in our goal to promote more women to corporate governance leadership positions, we may sometimes lose a lot of the important issues within the much needed dialogue. Making the C-suite and workplaces more welcoming to women goes beyond opening up the boy’s club to them.

“Looking to the future I'm both optimistic and concerned. The impact of the pandemic is going to be seismic - and that could be good or bad.”

The pandemic has opened up possibilities to expand flexible working, shared childcare, and the general “need for more human and empathetic leadership styles.” Dr. Brown explains that all of these benefits have “potentially really positive effects for women.”

Dr. Scarlett Brown (Tomorrow's Company website)

Scarlett Brown, Policy Adviser at the CIPD. Image Source: Tomorrow's Company website.

She adds, however, that Covid’s effects are a double-edged sword when it comes to implications in the workplace.

According to UK law firm Shoosmiths, mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their jobs or resigned due the pandemic, and mothers in two-parent households were doing a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers on average.

“It's also had catastrophic implications, both on women's careers and on equality, diversity and inclusion: women have still taken on the bulk of childcare, and have dropped out of the workforce at much higher rates than men. If organisations aren't careful, it could be a huge step backwards.”

One thing is certain, Hathorn agrees: “This is no time to take your foot off the gas in regard to board diversity and diversity of executive teams.”

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