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Are UK businesses doing enough to break the glass ceiling?

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This week in Brussels, vice-president of the European commissioner, Viviane Reding gave a speech that mapped out EU action on gender equality. Reding reinforced the UK’s statistics presented by Lord Davis’ Women on Boards report in February 2011, as well as Cranfield University’s Female FTSE Board Report 2012: there might be more women in business, but we are far from reaching equality.

The 2012 Female FTSE Report shows an increased number of women in the boardroom, and argues that companies with more diverse boards perform better with higher sales and higher returns on invited capital and equity. The FTSE 100, however, only contain 15 per cent of female directorships.

“To talk about women on boards is very much en vogue these days. Discussions around that theme often turn out to become passionate or ideological,” said Reding, who brought this debate to the international stage. “Despite an intense public debate, good intentions and many promises, the situation has not changed significantly in recent years.”

“Women must be given the same opportunities as men to get their rightful place on boards. In times of economic difficulties, we cannot waste talent,” resolves Reding.

The traditional idea that certain sectors, such as energy and engineering, fail to attract women to senior posts has been used in the past to justify the lack of women in leadership roles. But stereotypical female sectors, such as retail, still have male dominated boards. Next, a company aimed towards the female market, has only one female director.

Diversity campaigners Opportunity Now started their work because of a lack of women on boards 20 years ago. Their director Helen Wells told Real Business that she is still feeling a lack of improvement.

“After the last review I went back into our archive to see what happened over the last 20 years, and it was in some ways equally depressing and reassuring. I was looking at some speeches we were giving 20 years ago about the importance of women on boards –  and we could still be repeating the same things now.”

However, Wells goes on to say that there is reason to celebrate. 20 years ago the women on FTSE 100 boards were a meagre one per cent – now, it’s edging up towards 17 per cent. That might not sound like much for 20 years, but it is progress.

“It’s not an easy fix,” says Wells, “but every business that is taking equality seriously and taking a close look at their organisational culture has its place in the bigger picture, which is much about our cultural norms.”

Are UK businesses doing enough to break the glass ceiling? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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