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Women on boards – is progress still too glacial?

Matt Chittock

Icebert glacial progress in women on boards

Women make up a fifth of FTSE 100 board positions in the UK – but numbers aren’t growing as fast as they could be. Matt Chittock asks if we’re doing enough

Progress may be slow, but new figures show that women are increasingly taking their place in the boardrooms of top UK businesses.

Cranfield School of Management’s recently published Female FTSE Board report revealed that women now make up a fifth (20.7%) of board positions in FTSE 100 companies.

These appointments include Inga Beale, who in 2014 became Lloyd's of London's first female chief executive in its 325-year history.

This renewed focus on women at the top is timely. In 2011 Lord Davies of Abersoch led a government report which criticised the male-centric make up of most boards and set a target that the proportion of female board members in the UK should be increased to 25% by 2015.

With less than a year to go, Vince Cable says that 50 new appointments need to be made to meet this target.

But even if it’s missed – surely the figures are proof that women are finally breaking through the glass ceiling?

Not enough female executive directors

Maybe not. Looking beyond the report’s executive summary and into the detail brings up some problematic points.

The good news is that nearly all (98%) of the FTSE 100 companies feature women in the higher echelons. But despite this, only 6.9% of executive places are actually filled by women.

The rest of those board members are ‘non-executive directors’ traditionally kept outside of the usual high-level corporate decision-making process.
Michelle Wright, director of leading not-for-profit Cause 4, has written extensively about the issues facing women at the top.

She says that this lack of executive insight from women is a major loss for today’s boardrooms. “The function of a board should be to act as your ‘critical friend’,” she says. “It should be supportive but definitely has to be challenging at times. This means offering a balance of opinions. To achieve that it’s important women are properly represented.

“This is ‘diversity’ in its widest sense and offers companies the opportunity to get a different perspective on important decisions.”

The benefits of diversity

“There’s a wealth of data about the benefits of having a diverse workforce whether that’s diversity around education, ethnicity or gender,” adds Kathryn Nawrockyi, director of Opportunity Now [http://opportunitynow.bitc.org.uk/] – the campaign on gender diversity from Business in the Community.

“If in a company you see ‘like’ go on to recruit ‘like’ then you’ll find that the same problems are perpetuated.”

Research shows that having more women in the boardroom is likely to boost the bottom line too.

For instance, Credit Suisse published a report in 2012 that showed having more women on corporate boards increased both the share price and the return on equity.

So if women bring so much to the boardroom why are they currently locked outside – or stuck in non-executive roles?

Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s zeitgeist-capturing book, Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead, suggests some smart answers.

Sandberg discusses how in leadership a double standard divides the sexes – and that being ambitious is all too often seen as positive in a man, but a negative personality trait for women.

She also writes about how women are sometimes told to downplay their achievements to avoid being seen as ‘pushy’ or threatening. 

Do women have a confidence problem?

Any business that regularly talks to female graduates knows that there’s no lack of ambition out there.  But Wright has seen first-hand how these young women can find self-confidence hard to muster.

“I think that something definitely happen to girls when they go through the school system,” she says. “In my job I meet with people who want to set up their own businesses. You see very confident (sometimes overconfident) young men – but young women often say things like: ‘I’d like to set up my own business, but I don’t know I have what it takes.’”

Wright says that this is where ‘female-only’ professional networks can make all the difference.

“There’s definitely something to be said about having a safe space in which women can talk to each other, help each other, and explore some of these issues,” she says. “Sometimes it’s valuable to just find somewhere you can say: ‘You know – sometimes this is really tough’ without anyone judging you.”

Nawrockyi says that it doesn’t help that the archetype companies often use for success is often based around “long hours and full-time commitments”.

It’s what she calls the “male breadwinner model” – and it’s increasingly out of step with women, and men, who are seeking harmony between home and the office.

Empowering more women to reach the top means promoting alternative role models – from leaders like the aforementioned Sheryl Sandberg to powerful women in organisations closer to home.

“I think this sets a challenge for us as leaders to be more open and authentic,” says Nawrockyi. “There’s often a ‘superwoman’ image portrayed in the media which is unachievable for most women. So I think it’s worth being honest about the challenges involved.”

“We also need to look at men too and take small nuggets of inspiration from all kinds of leaders.”

Ultimately Nawrockyi says that although more women in boards send out a strong positive message – boards aren’t responsible for the culture of their organisation.

She says that creating a culture in which women, and men, have more of a shot at the top, is about getting the basics right.

This means everything from open, transparent and regular performance reviews to promoting an ‘agile’ way of working which recognises staff have commitments outside of work.

“We need to take the lead and take this issue out of ‘diversity’, where it sits in the ‘hr drawer’ and make it an operational issue,” Nawrockyi says.

“After all, these women are the people we want to lead in the future. We need to invest in them”

As America’s potential first female president Hilary Rodham Clinton says: “women are the world’s most underused resource.”

And in the UK, despite reasons for optimism, the facts show that too much of this valuable resource is currently going to waste.

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