HR & Management

Despite increase in female NEDs, Britain needs to "up its game" regarding women on boards

5 min read

06 August 2015

Four years after the launch of the Davies Report, the UK has become the fifth country in the world in terms of the percentage of women on corporate boards. However, Cranfield University believes that Britain is about to hit a road block in terms of gender equality.

We have now reached 2015, the year for which Lord Davies set a target to achieve 25 per cent of women serving on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. This target was reached in July, having jumped from 23.5 per cent in March.

In the FTSE 100, Diageo and Intercontinental Hotels Group tie for first place with 45.45 per cent women on boards, according to Cranfield University and the Davies Steering Group. It also proved to be a landmark year, with the FTSE 100 having no all-male boards – achieved when Glencore appointed a woman to its board.

The percentage of female non-executive directors (NEDs) has increased to 28.5 per cent and that of female executive directors (EDs) to 8.6 per cent. Some 233 women now hold FTSE 100 directorships. Recently Helen Weir joined Marks & Spencer; Irene Dorner joined Rolls-Royce Holdings; Gay Evans and Jasmine Whitbread joined Standard Chartered; and Judith Hartmann joined Unilever.

The Davies Report had been such a success that its original target of 25 per cent women on boards of FTSE 100 companies by 2015 was extended to FTSE 250 companies in 2012. The FTSE 250 has since more than doubled the percentage of women on boards, from 7.8 per cent to 18 per cent. 

However, the number of companies with female executive directors in the FTSE 250 fell again, with the result that only 4.6 per cent executive directors in FTSE 250 companies are women. This is what the figure was in 2012.

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On a positive note, there are eight females holding the chairmanship of FTSE 250 companies. There are nine female CEOs, including Kate Swann SSP Group and Alison Platt from Countrywide, who replaced Harriet Green on the list as she left Thomas Cook.

The rise of female NEDs was echoed by Korn Ferry’s “Class of 2014” report, which suggested that 39 per cent of first-time NED appointments to FTSE 350 companies were women, up from 28 per cent in 2013 and 11 per cent in 2007.

Furthermore, Richard Emerton, CEO at Korn Ferry, suggested that it had led to an increase in appointments of people with no past listed company executive board experience. He said: “This is evidence that boards are casting the net wider and looking for new blood, but it also puts pressure on chairmen to ensure that these ‘inexperienced’ appointees are thoroughly inducted and carefully mentored as they learn the craft of public company directorship.

“Though there are many positive signs evidenced by this report, there is still progress to be made to ensure a breadth of experience and viewpoints,” he added. “Of course, neither boards nor individuals want a situation where appointments are made on the basis of tokenism, so much of the challenge lies in identifying, supporting and developing the talent pipeline so that company leaders rise from a truly diverse talent pool.”

Helen Pitcher, chairman of Advanced Boardroom Excellence, also thought there was cause to worry. She claimed that if the UK did not focus on the executive pipeline with equal attention and energy, the “future will not be bright. We will not have more women in the pipeline, just women sitting on multiple boards.”

According to Cranfield University, its “trajectory has revealed a worrying plateauing effect”, whereby the percentage of women on boards fails to surpass 28 per cent by 2020. This plateauing effect is caused by the high intake of female directors immediately after the Davies Report, but not sustained ever since. 

What is increasingly clear, Pitcher suggested, is that the UK needs to “up its game” as the real goal is 33 per cent women on boards by 2020, as set out in the EU proposed Directive.