Women on boards: could do better

Back in 2011, former trade minister Lord Davies issued a report recommending that UK listed companies in the FTSE 100 should be aiming for a minimum of 25% female board member representation by the end of 2015. At the time the figure stood at 12.5%.

And last week, he announced this voluntary target had been met and exceeded (now 26%) with the added bonus of no all-male FTSE 100 boards. Good news. Better still, he’s moved the posts and set a new goal: 33% of women board members at FTSE 350 firms by 2020.

His latest report states that while UK top companies have reached a major milestone in increasing the number of women in their boardrooms, more needs to be done. Agreed.

And while I’m all for promotion based on ability and merit (a no-brainer), I’m also keen on progress. If it takes positive discrimination to aid both these processes then so be it. A balance can, and should, be found.

But there’s a catch.

While this increase is to be applauded, the actual figures are a little more skewed, as many of these women in board roles are non-executive rather than executive, and in some cases the same women sitting around several different tables.

According to BoardWatch, the current FTSE 100 statistic is made up of 31.4% non-executive directors compared to 9.6% executive directors.

For example, there are only five female FTSE 100 chief executives: easyJet’s Carolyn McCall, Imperial Tobacco’s Alison Cooper, Kingfisher’s Veronique Laury, Royal Mail’s Moya Greene, and Severn Trent’s Liv Garfield. And co-founder of LastMinute.com, Martha Lane Fox, was at one point a board member of three such companies – Channel 4, Marks and Spencer, and Mydeco – all at the same time.

Lord Davies’ proposals are spot on and making a difference, but this mustn’t turn into a token gesture. If 2020 is to herald the advent of a third (or more) women in the boardrooms of the UK’s leading companies, let’s make sure it includes senior levels and different ladies. Only then will this exercise have achieved its real objective.

Claire Dee is Business Women in Surrey co-chair, a member of the Surrey Chambers of Commerce board, and director of Claire Dee Communications.

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