The issue of female representation in the boardroom has proved to be increasingly urgent in the last decade. But it would appear that despite the progress of women in other fields – politics, law and medicine among them – big business is lagging some way behind.
Earlier this year, in a report commissioned by the government, Lord Davies of Abersoch found that in 2010 women made up only 12.5 percent of corporate boards among the UK's top companies – the FTSE 100.
In response, the Lord Davies report recommended that a target of 25 percent of women directors be set for firms to achieve by 2015. He stopped short of recommending a quota, and settled on a set of goals and improved disclosure of diversity strategies and development. While this does represent progress, it should also be set against the fact that the UK's target is significantly lower than the 40 percent quotas adopted by Norway, France and Spain.
Defending the recommendations, Lord Davies said: "On balance the decision has been made not to recommend quotas. Government must reserve the right to introduce more prescriptive alternatives if the recommended business-led approach does not achieve significant change."
Indeed there are those that hold that natural demographic changes and the growing number of women graduates will see the representation of women on boards increase of its own accord. However, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2008 suggested that at the current rate of change it would take more than 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK's largest 100 companies.
Initially at least, the Davies Report has had an effect. By August, 18 women had been named as directors of blue chip companies in the months following the publication of the report. The appointments make up 31 percent of the total made over the period, more than twice the proportion of female-to-male appointments seen in any previous year, according to reports.
Progress, to a point
But seven months on that initial spike has proved unrepresentative. In the FTSE 100, the number of women holding board directorships at 1 September 2011 was 155 out of a total of 1,092 directorships – just 14.2 percent.
Similarly, only a third of FTSE companies have followed Lord Davies's recommendations by setting a target for female board appointments. Of them, Lloyds Banking Group and Rolls-Royce aim to boldly increase their female representation by 20 to 23 percent.
And it seems that the progress so far has been centred more at the top of the UK's corporate tree. Only 17 of the FTSE 250 companies have announced board targets so far, although as a counterpoint to that, there has been an increase of female-held directorships to 178 out of a possible 1,992 directorships, representing 8.9 percent in total.
However, underneath the headline figures lie some encouraging indicators. "Our review reveals that the number of women in board positions is beginning to creep up, albeit quite slowly," says Sue Vinnicombe, professor of diversity management at Cranfield School of Management.
"There are, however some very encouraging signs. Fourteen out of the 21 FTSE 100 new appointees (67 percent) and 20 out of the 28 FTSE 250 new appointees (72 percent) had no prior FTSE 100 or FTSE 250 board experience. This suggests the appointment process is beginning to open up to new women."
Vinnicombe recently co-authored a full report on the issue of female representation in UK boardroom that coincided with the Davies Report. The Cranfield study also concluded, among other things, that the process for appointing non-executives is flawed and should be reformed (the remedy was for all private sector non-executive posts to be publicly advertised). However, it also stopped short of recommending the imposition of quotas.