UK firms look set to fail to meet board gender targets

While no firms dare speak against the notion of gender diversity, excuses used by members of the FTSE 350 are believed to include that their industry is too specialised
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The Independent Online

Leading companies are failing to tackle gender diversity at board level, experts warn. That's despite a government deadline demanding they publish proposals to boost the number of female board members. In February Lord Davies called on FTSE 350 companies to achieve "urgent change" and announce aspirational goals within the next six months.

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The deadline falls tomorrow, but while figures from FTSE 100 firms point to positive action, outside the main blue chip index the response appears less favourable. Anecdotal evidence suggests there still remains resistance to falling into line with Davies's call for firms to aim for a minimum of 25 per cent female representation on boards by 2015.

Since the report was published on 24 February, 18 women have been appointed to the boards of FTSE 100 firms, representing 31 per cent of the total over the period. That's twice the proportion seen in any previous year. Meanwhile, since last October the number of all-male FTSE 100 boards has fallen by a third, from 21 to 14.

But such figures don't impress Professor Susan Vinnicombe, director of the International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield University School of Management, who publishes an annual Female FTSE Board Report. In 2010 she reported "another year of barely perceptible change in the representation of women in leadership positions of UK PLCs."

Yesterday she said: "From what we've seen so far a number of companies have simply commented that they already achieve the 25 per cent target while others say they are aiming towards it. But we haven't seen any great detail on what their initiatives are going to be to tackle gender diversity."

Elaine Aarons, a partner in the employment group at Withers says women are still being blocked from boards. "I deal with many highly regarded senior women who don't get through to that last stage of business of joining the board," she said. "It's partly systemic. Advancement is not related directly to merit with politics usually playing a big part."

She doesn't believe that Davies's proposals will lead to better practice. "The question is, do we need something more than government guidance? There have been many examples in the workplace where the government has tried to sort things by guidance and it has made no difference. Only time will tell what difference the Davies report will make, but I'm not optimistic."

While no firms dare to speak against the notion of gender diversity, excuses used by some members of the FTSE 350 are believed to include that their industry is too specialised and has too few women in it. Or some claim their boards are too small to include women.

"Responses among companies in the FTSE 350 looks far less encouraging with very few female board appointments," said Professor Vinnicombe. "The chairmen of these firms claim it's different for them as their boards are smaller. But if you look at the top 100 firms in Australia, their average board size is seven – roughly the same as many FTSE 350 firms – and they've managed to put women on the board."

She pointed out that companies can benefit from the multi-sector experience that women can bring. "Other countries are much more relaxed about the type of people they recruit," she said. " In the US, they have many more entrepreneurs and academics on boards. One of the biggest problems in the UK is that companies are too strait-jacketed in terms of who they recruit."

Some firms have made high-profile strides. Three out of 12 directors at M&S, for instance, are female, while insurer Aviva has 23 per cent female representation.

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills said it will analyse companies' responses in September. If it discovers they are not playing ball, then they may be forced to.