Boards double number of women members

Gender gap narrows as companies respond to Lord Davies' 'iron fist in velvet glove' approach
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The Independent Online

The number of women being hired as non-executive directors to FTSE 100 companies is running at nearly double the rate it was before the Davies report, which threatened the introduction of fixed quotas.

Over the past six months, 23 per cent of all new non-executive board appointments have been filled by women, compared with just under 10 per cent for all of 2010, and the number of companies with no women on the board has fallen from 21 to 17.

In another coup for female campaigners, Val Gooding, the former boss of medical insurer Bupa, was last week appointed chairman of Premier Farnell, the FTSE 250 engineering group which already has a woman chief executive, Harriet Green. More than half of FTSE 250 firms have no female directors.

Andrew Roscoe, managing director of Egon Zehnder International, the search firm, said last week: "The iron fist in the velvet glove approach appears to be working. It is clear that companies are responding to the targets which Lord Davies set out in his report. Many of our top FTSE 100 clients are asking us to provide them with non-executive – and executive – female candidates."

Egon Zehnder, which is one of several search firms putting together a voluntary code of practice for companies to follow, is also appointing women at a higher rate, having filled 27 per cent of the non-executive roles with females in the past six months.

The recent rise reflects a similar experience to that of French companies, which also moved quickly to appoint female non-execs ahead of the threat of legislation on quotas. Between 2008 and 2010, the French saw a 38 per cent rise in the number of women appointments, and some companies in France, such as BNP Paribas, now have as many as five women on the board.

Mr Roscoe added: "We are seeing companies respond in a positive way. One big international company has told us it plans to contact all former female staff – who may have left to take a childcare break – to get back in touch and to stay in contact."

Lord Davies, whose review into why so few women are represented at senior levels was published in February, recommended that a quarter of all board non-executive positions should be held by women by 2015. But quotas should be introduced if this proportion was not achieved, he said.

The Financial Reporting Council, the watchdog for listed companies, is now consulting with its members on how to incorporate diversity into the code. It is due to publish its own views on the Davies report in July.

As well as the Davies report, there have been other initiatives, such as The 30% Club, founded by senior industrialists such as Sir Roger Carr and Sir Win Bischoff, which is pushing for around a third of all board appointments to be filled by female candidates. The moves by Carr and Bischoff and other heavyweight chairmen have been a driving force behind this latest increase in figures.

These latest appointments will have pushed up the overall number of women directors on FTSE 100 boards to around 13 per cent, but this is still way off target. Mr Roscoe said: "At this rate the overall level may go up by around 1 per cent a year, so it will take another 30 or so years to reach an overall level of 40 per cent."