David Prosser: Britain's failure to put women on the board

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The Independent Online

Outlook Here's some better news about the miserable under-representation of women in Britain's boardrooms: the proportion of women directors at FTSE 100 companies has risen over the past year. Sadly, it's a pretty tiny increase, from 12.2 per cent to 12.6 per cent, and outside the Footsie, smaller companies are doing much worse on female representation. The proportion of women directors at FTSE 250 and Small Cap companies has fallen, to around 7 per cent.

The data, compiled by the recruitment consultant Egon Zehnder, underlines again how backward Britain is when it comes to getting women into executive – or even non-executive – positions within companies. And unfortunately, there isn't much reason to hope that the very gentle nudge towards redressing the balance made by the last update to the Combined Code on corporate governance is going to make more than an incremental difference.

It is to be welcomed that since May, the code has, for the first time, addressed this issue: listed companies appointing directors are now supposed to "pay due regard for the benefits of diversity on the board, including gender". But that instruction looks pretty tame compared with the efforts of some other countries.

In Norway, for example, companies over a certain size have, since 2006, been required to ensure their boards are at least 40 per cent female. And having seen Norway's experience yield positive results – rather than the quota-driven hiring of substandard women that some critics feared – others are now following its lead. Spain, Australia and France are all considering similar measures.

That Britain is being left behind should be a matter of some shame. But the efforts being made elsewhere may also make it even tougher to improve the figures in this country. There is only a limited pool of talent at any one time – from either gender – but it is increasingly international. If other countries begin recruiting British women as they try to comply with their own rules, there will be fewer potential female directors to choose from here.

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