A third of all new appointments to the boards of Europe's biggest firms so far in 2012 have been women, raising hopes that the glass ceiling could soon be shattered, according to the recruitment firm Egon Zehnder.
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The European-wide survey shows that women are taking up places on boards in ever-increasing numbers, with a doubling from 8 per cent to 16 per cent in all board seats. The UK has a slightly higher women's representation than the European average, but lags badly behind countries in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France, which has imposed some quotas.
Some 18.2 per cent of all UK board seats are taken by women, compared to an EU average of 15.6 per cent. This is up from just 13.3 per cent in 2010, after which a report penned by Lord Davis into inequality at the top of British corporate life set an ambitious target of a quarter of all seats to be in the hands of women by 2015.
But experts say that the improvement in numbers masks deep-rooted problems: "Many of these posts are non-executive, and frankly it's easier for the board of a FTSE 100 company to fly in a couple of women on a non-executive basis. The real challenge is for companies to bring women through the ranks, to get them to rise to the top of the executive pool," said Heather Jackson, founder of the Women's Business Forum.
Viviane Reding, the EU justice commissioner, is preparing to unveil legislation which would impose quotas on all large listed firms. By 2020 firms with 250 or more staff or a turnover in excess of £40m will be expected to have at least 40 per cent of non-executive board seats in the hands of women. Firms that fail to meet the target could face EU fines.
But Jane Scott, director of the Professional Boards Forum, which monitors the participation of women in top management, says that the UK may be already on track to meet this target: "Ever since the Davis report we have seen a shift in the numbers of women in board positions. Our figures suggest that 44 per cent of all new board posts are going to women, and we only have 83 more seats to fill by 2015 in order that we meet the target set by the Davis report. By 2020 we could be at 40 per cent or higher," Ms Scott said.
At a debate on women in the boardroom sponsored by the Evening Standard on Tuesday, Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment, said that the financial crisis was also proving a catalyst, making company leaders realise that having "different types of people making decisions, challenging each other and creating the right culture" could help avoid such catastrophes in future.