One third of FTSE 100 board members likely to be female by 2020

But experts say government-backed study masks lack of ‘active, observable leadership positions’

The UK’s 100 largest listed companies are on track to meet their target of women holding one third of board level positions by 2020, the government’s Hampton-Alexander Review has today revealed – but experts warned more work is needed to ensure genuine representation across senior levels of business.

The government-backed review, conducted by an independent body which aims to improve the gender balance of the UK’s boardrooms, also revealed the number of all-male boards across the FTSE 350 has fallen from 152 in 2011 to five in 2018. 

However the review also found one in four FTSE 350 companies have only one woman on their board, and suggested it could take until 2035 before the proportion of women chairing boards reached one third.

The report stated: “It is time to call out the boards that are dragging overall progress downwards. It is incumbent on every FTSE 350 listed company to play their part. Today, one woman at the table is little different to none” 

Experts cautioned that focusing on board appointments also risked masking broader issues with female representation at senior levels of business. Analysis by Cranfield University this year found there were only 30 women in full-time executive roles in FTSE 250 firms, and that the number had actually fallen year on year. There were only six female chief executives.

Claire McCartney, diversity and inclusion advisor for the CIPD, agreed the number of women in board positions was “worryingly low,” and added the problem went beyond the boardroom. 

She said: “While having women at board level in organisations is extremely important, we also need to be placing much more focus on women in active, observable leadership positions. While the findings show an increase in the number of women in FTSE 100 executive committees, more work is needed here. 

“This increased visibility will likely have much more of an impact on the rest of the workforce than in organisations that just have women in non-executive director positions.”

Last year’s Hampton Alexander Review prompted calls for businesses to “stop window dressing” and promote more senior women. Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, called on companies to champion women “at every level,” and said female role models were fundamental to shifting workplace culture to be more inclusive. 

Responding to this year’s review, McCartney said organisations should focus much more on what is being done to carve a path for women already in the organisation to help them rise up the ranks to senior levels. She recommended creating talent pipelines “that take away the barriers to the top”.

Last year, research by the 30% Club found men were much more likely to get advice from managers on specific opportunities, with the aim of broadening their skillset and giving them the experience needed for promotions. 

Lorna Fitzsimons CEO of Pipeline, welcomed the increase in female board members but questioned “the assumption that this means more women on executive committees and in C-Suite roles”. 

She said: “Unless the women are in profit and loss roles, they still will not get the biggest C-suite jobs and we will still be stuck with only a few female CEOs and executive directors. In the face of Brexit, and labour and talent shortages, with women still gaining the best qualifications, how can this be good for business or good for the economy?”