UK boardroom diversity improves but top jobs remain elusive

Written by: Cat Rutter Pooley
Published on: 8 Nov 2019

When the UK’s 350 largest listed companies finally hit the milestone of having 30 per cent of board roles being held by women this week, it was a landmark achievement for the City of London’s diversity campaigners. 

Nine years earlier the 30% Club had been founded with the aim of reaching the target, then a long way off. At the time women held only 9.5 per cent of roles. 

Yet while there is cause to celebrate what has been achieved in the FTSE 350, activists acknowledge business still has far to go to improve. The UK’s gender pay gap remains stubbornly wide at just under 12 per cent. 

Both the 30% Club and the government-backed Hampton-Alexander review focused on getting more women into the boardroom as a first step in improving gender diversity. But this was largely achieved by recruiting women to non-executive roles rather than senior executive positions. 

“There is no shortage of capable women willing to take the top job, they are just not getting picked,” said Denise Wilson, chief executive of the Hampton-Alexander review, which is due to publish its annual report on FTSE women leaders next month.

Only five female chief executives are in the FTSE 100. That had been set to rise with the recent appointment of Alison Rose as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, but the departure of Alison Cooper from Imperial Brands, announced on Thursday, leaves the blue-chip index stuck. 

The situation among the next 250 companies is even worse: only eight women were chief executives at the end of September. Just five groups in the FTSE 100 and 20 in the FTSE 250 have female chairs. 

Other European countries have also outperformed the UK. France, which set a quota for women to hold 40 per cent of board roles on CAC 40 companies by 2017, has reached 43 per cent, according to an FT analysis of data from Bloomberg. In the Netherlands the proportion was 32 per cent and in Germany 31 per cent, the data showed. 

However, the UK is ahead of big economies in Asia and the US. In Japan only 9 per cent of board roles were held by women, compared with 12 per cent in China and 25 per cent in the US. 

Brenda Trenowden said the 30% Club, which she co-chairs, had seen increasing interest in its campaign internationally. But she added: “We are also very cognisant of the fact that each country has its own cultural and structural challenges which may hinder the speed of progress.”

Campaigners have also moved beyond gender to encourage diversity in a broader sense, looking at getting more black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates and those from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds on to boards. 

Helena Morrissey, who chairs the investment industry’s Diversity Project, said the initial emphasis on women on boards had nonetheless served to challenge perceptions of the modern boardroom. “Women on boards was a catalyst for thinking about the criteria for being a good board candidate, and shook up the definition of meritocracy,” she said. “We’ve prised open the lid on the cosy club of what it takes to be a good board member.”