Lack of female executives in UK boardrooms ‘appalling’, survey finds

Written by: Daniel Thomas
Published on: 21 Feb 2023

female executives
While the number of FTSE 100 female non-executives increased by 15% over the past year, the number in executive roles increased by just 3% © Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

British companies are guilty of an “appalling” shortfall of women in executive roles, according to a FTSE board report from Cranfield University and EY.

The annual survey of the UK’s FTSE 350 raises new concerns that companies are not doing enough to bring through women in management positions despite hitting targets for women directors in the boardroom.

The number of women on FTSE-listed company boards has risen this year to almost 40 per cent but nine in 10 were in non-executive positions, suggesting the increase has been driven by appointments of females to such roles to comply with targets.

The survey showed there are only nine female chief executives in the FTSE 100. While the number of women in non-executive roles in the FTSE 100 has increased by 15 per cent over the past year, the number of women in executive directorships increased by just 3 per cent to 36.

Alison Kay, managing partner for client service at EY, UK & Ireland said FTSE businesses were “falling woefully short of the intended outcome — distributing the power and influence necessary to achieve true gender parity”.

Kay said tough decisions were needed “to push further into root-and-branch reform” given the “alarming lack of progress in gender-proofing executive succession planning”.

The survey showed that only about 17 per cent of executives in the FTSE 100 are female — much lower than the headline 40 per cent figure for boards. This falls to 12 per cent among smaller companies on the FTSE 250, where for the third year running only 47 women hold executive directorships.

Women account for almost 40 per cent of directors on FTSE 100 boards and 39 per cent among the smaller companies on the FTSE 250, in line with the new government-backed Women Leaders Review targets.

Last week, the government extended the review, previously known as the Hampton Alexander Review, to include some of the UK’s largest private companies.

While targets are being reached on an average basis in the FTSE 100, some individual companies are falling short. The report found 10 companies in the FTSE 100 with 30 per cent or less female representation in their boardrooms.

Cranfield University warned about the slow progress of women being appointed to significant management roles, such as chair and CEO, and called for executive succession planning to be taken more seriously at board level.

Sue Vinnicombe, professor of women and leadership at Cranfield School of Management, said the “lack of progress in terms of seeing women in these key executive roles is frankly appalling”.

Vinnicombe argued that “for real change to happen, women simply must be in the significant decision-making roles of CEO and chair”.

The report recommends greater guidance for board nominations committees to make their role in improving gender diversity more explicit.

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