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At last, the proof. Sexism in the City holds women back

'Persistent bias' is making female progress at executive level painfully slow, says new report

Companies are discriminating against talented women in the boardroom because of a "persistent and unconscious bias" that is hampering the rate of female progress in businesses across Britain, new government research has found.

The study, carried out by Cranfield University School of Management and commissioned by the Government Equalities Office, undermines the claim that company boardrooms lack female directors because women are not ambitious or skilful enough to take on executive roles.

The findings, which come as a group of MPs investigates the role of women in the City, will stoke claims that sexism is rife in British boardrooms. Barely 12 per cent of FTSE 100 company directors are female, up from 7 per cent a decade ago.

Ruth Sealy, deputy director of Cranfield's International Centre for Women Leaders, said men were often biased when it came to promoting their female colleagues. "Evidence clearly shows that women do not lack the skills or qualifications for boards. There is a diverse talent pool out there, but persistent and unconscious bias leads to misrepresentation of skills and aspiration."

The report warned that, in some sectors, boardroom inequality was getting worse. Only five directors on FTSE bank boards are female, down from 16 five years ago, with the percentage of female directors sliding from 13 per cent to 8 per cent during the same period. At the current rate of change, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has warned that it will take 70 years before boardrooms have an equal number of male and female directors.

The report also blamed "board cultures", which still hinge on old boys' networks, for putting women and other minorities at a disadvantage. "There is strong evidence that these informal, relational factors which are essential in gaining access to boards and integrating board dynamics tend to put minorities at a disadvantage," it said.

Ms Sealy added that the lack of potential female executive candidates was not due to slim pickings in the pipeline – Cranfield's annual Female FTSE report last year identified more than 1,800 potential female directors – but was because recruiters were failing to identify appropriate candidates.

Harriet Harman, the minister for women and equality, last week told MPs that action was needed to correct the "nightmare" of male-dominated leadership, blaming the lack of women at the top of City firms on "institutionalised gender discrimination". This sparked fears that the UK could follow Norway's lead and legislate to force companies to appoint female directors.

Ruth Lea, a non-executive director at Arbuthnot Banking Group, said: "That would be a huge mistake. There would be an outcry if quotas were introduced. A lot of boards run quite slim [operations] and having people on them who did not have the requisite experience would backfire. Being a director on a board is not easy. Harriet Harman should try it."

Women in quotes...

'You have to have the requisite experience to access the old boys' network. For whatever reason, fewer women than men have that experience'

Ruth Lea, Non-executive director, Arbuthnot Banking Group

'The consumers of the future are diverse, and therefore the people who are running the companies need to understand the consumers of the future'

Harriet Harman, Minister for women and equality

'The benefits of diverse boards have been well aired, and what we'll add to the mix with our Women on Board initiative is a recruitment process to facilitate the best appointments'

Anna Ford, Non-executive director, J Sainsbury

'We all want to see companies making use of all the talent that's available, and that means more women on boards. It makes business sense to have a diversity of people'

Theresa May, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions