Women hold majority of non-executive board roles for the first time ever, analysis finds

But experts say there is more to be done as men still dominate senior board positions

Women now hold the majority of non-executive board roles for the first time ever, data shows, but men still hold most of the executive director positions. 

The 2021 UK Spencer Stuart Board Index – a review of governance practice in the FTSE 150 on 30 April 2021, excluding investment trusts – found that women now represent 51 per cent of all non-executive directors, up from 18 per cent a decade ago.

For the first time since tracking began, the number of non-executive positions occupied by women was 442, which exceeded those occupied by men (422), and women occupied more than a third (36 per cent) of all board roles, up from 34 per cent in 2020.

However, the analysis found the majority (86 per cent) of executive directors were male, with men holding all four senior board positions in 64 of the top 150 companies. There has also been no increase of women holding executive director positions over the last year. 

There has also been progress in improving other areas of diversity among FTSE boards; the report found that in the last year, the number of appointments of directors with a minority ethnic background increased by more than 40 per cent.

In 2017, the Parker Review called for FTSE 100 firms to commit to “One by 21” and have at least one director from a minority ethnic background on their boards by December 2021. 

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According to the Spencer Stuart analysis, three in five (61 per cent) FTSE 150 firms had at least one minority ethnic director sitting on their board, but 39 per cent – the equivalent of 59 companies – had no minority ethnic representation.

The proportion of first-time board directors from minority ethnic backgrounds also rose from 17 per cent to a quarter (25 per cent) in the last year

However, the latest figures showed that, despite the target set by the Parker Review, 18 FTSE 100 firms had not reached this level as of 30 April (the index’s cut off date) and 19 companies either did not report their situation or allude to the Parker Review. 

But the report did say that, since the cut off date in April, there have been more appointments of board members with minority ethnic backgrounds. 

The research also found that most directors with ethnic minority backgrounds do not hold leadership positions on the board, with only one board chair among the survey constituents identifying as being minority ethnic.

Commenting on the data, Sandra Kerr CBE, race equality director at Business in the Community, told People Management that the results are a sign of progress, however slow. 

“Since mentorship and sponsorship opportunities have declined since 2018, we need more leaders to step up and support employees of ethnic minority backgrounds,” she explained. 

Kerr also said that employers needed to ensure people get credit for their work and understand that many female workers of black, Asian and mixed-race ethnicity may need help to access opportunities through mentors and sponsors. 

Paul Holcroft, managing director at Croner, added that “businesses should also consider wider approaches to encouraging workplace inclusion,” including gender and ethnicity pay gap reporting to evaluate the number of employees from underrepresented groups. 

He also said that firms need to implement measures to ensure the workplace is equal and inclusive, such as gender and ethnicity pay gap reporting to evaluate the number of employees from underrepresented groups. 

Dr Scarlett Brown, corporate governance lead at the CIPD, agreed that more companies need to collect data on the diversity of their workforce, including disability, gender, sexual orientation, social background and cognitive diversity.

“The real challenge is increasing the number of women in leadership roles, where progress is still low,” she said, adding that “diversity at board level - which is vital for effective decision making - also needs to encompass more than just gender or ethnicity.”