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Published on 3rd March 2021

Women on Boards: Cup Half Full or Cup Half Empty?


Last week’s media heralded the headline that women now represent 1 in 3 Board positions (33.2%) in the FTSE 250. Against a starting position in 2011 of 7.8%, this is undoubtedly notable and encouraging progress. There was lots of positive coverage and a sense of ‘aren’t we doing well.

However, dig deeper into the source Hampton-Alexander review (https://ftsewomenleaders.com/) and a more nuanced and uncomfortable position emerges.

  • Executive positions on the same FTSE 250 Boards represent only 7% of positions. Non-Exec appointments are clearly increasing and flattering the statistics, but do they have the same influence and standing?
  • Only 9% of Finance Directors and 9% of CIOs, counter weighted by 65% of HR Directors are women on these Boards. All, no doubt, very talented but it feels like there is still a natural bias by function. If we overlay gender pay gap data, it probably explains some of the persisting gap there too. The fact remains, few women are in the highest paid executive roles.
  • Interestingly, 8 of the top 10 performing companies in the FTSE 250 are categorised as from the Equity Investment sector- drawing on women’s financial and analytical skills in the City of London. Great news if you are in that sector, but again potentially skewing the wider picture.

The founders of WUN were discussing the report and its findings, and there was broad agreement that it really does not feel like we are making enough real progress, specifically in the Utilities sector, which we represent.

What would the %s be if you looked across all business, as opposed to the top listed companies? That is where the majority of employment happens, particularly in our sector. We suspect the numbers would be significantly less positive. There are still far too many operational businesses with total lack of diversity at Board level, or almost worse the ‘token’ woman. If you are that token woman, it can be a very lonely place to operate, when you are consistently the only female in the room. It is no surprise that many women are leaving the sector as a result, before getting to senior positions.

We were laughing about the fact that one of us got to Wednesday that week on Zoom calls before seeing another woman. This is the reality that we are all used to, and can laugh at. But does it mean that women need to be more resilient to succeed or have to adapt themselves to a male dominated culture to survive?

We were also laughing (cynically) at the fact that head hunters regularly call, with a mandate to ‘find a woman’ for a Board role. Is this a good or a bad thing? Does it result in the best person being selected for the role? It is almost a worse form of positive discrimination, and long term will not necessarily improve the quality of Boards. But perhaps it is a necessary and positive change to permanently shift a culture?

Ultimately we were agreeing, that whilst it is good to celebrate improvements at FTSE 350 level, real transformation will only happen if change is embedded across all levels and across all business types. Measurement and media have helped the FTSE companies; now we need to do more, particularly in a post COVID world, to shine the spotlight across all businesses in the Utilities sector.