• Alex Davies
  • 24 February 2012

Changing attitudes: getting women on board

A year ago today, Lord Mervyn Davies published a report entitled ‘Women on boards’, after being commissioned by the Coalition Government to undertake a review of the UK’s corporate governance, and to make recommendations as to how UK business can get more women to the top. 

Lord Davies’ report makes for interesting reading. He highlights studies in which it has been found that it takes three or more women on a Board to change the group dynamic, that the environment for women in senior roles improves once a third of leaders are female, and that a ‘critical mass’ of 30% or more women at board level or in senior management produces the best financial results. 

Yet, in 2010, one in five (21%) FTSE 100 companies and over half (52.4%) of FTSE 250 companies had no women on their boards. Only 2% of chairs of FTSE 100 companies were women. In 2010, 117 new male appointments to Boards were made, compared to just 18 new female appointments. 

At the beginning of this year I wrote an article for Workplace Law Magazine on the issue of women in the boardroom. My feelings towards female quotas were – and still are – unfavourable. The idea of promoting women via a number-crunching ‘initiative’ seems to me political rhetoric, designed to appease voters, to be quietly dropped once initial figures start to rise. I also find the idea faintly embarrassing. Top female athletes may never be able to outrun their male counterparts, but to the best of my knowledge (and please excuse my anthropological ignorance) women’s brains are proportionately the same size as men’s and don’t suffer from a lack of stamina. To give women a leg up the corporate ladder seems to me ridiculous, basically because it’s so unnecessary. 

But, a year on from the publication of this report, those numbers are no easier to digest. Last February, Davies’ study urged FTSE 100 companies to double the percentage of women at the top table by 2015, from 12.5% to 25%. The latest figures show they now make up 15%, yet there are still 11 companies in the FTSE 100 with all-male boards. 

Davies has been quoted as saying “older chairmen pay lip service” to the idea of gender equality; some refuse to talk to him at all. 

So why is it that so few Boards have gender equality? 

Obviously, there are many underlying factors, not least of which is the inevitable and oft-quoted argument of childcare commitments and the necessary career breaks required by women to raise a family. Despite 60% of the UK’s university graduates being female, the talent pool dries out considerably when these women reach child-bearing age. A lack of flexible working arrangements, and a stereotypical and negative attitude towards women going on ‘baby holidays’ contribute to a regressive working atmosphere for women who have both career and family aspirations. A lack of mentoring schemes, closed doors or ‘glass ceilings’ serve to favour men over ambitious, hardworking, and otherwise as well qualified and experienced, women. 

Then of course there’s the typical industry sector of FTSE 100 and 250 companies. Consumer-facing industries have a much higher prevalence of women on their boards, whereas those with the lowest numbers are ‘heavy industrial’ companies – and it’s these companies that feature highly in the FTSE lists. 

But even discounting these factors, it remains the case that UK plc is biased heavily in favour of the male. Balancing this against the fact that 70% of household expenditure is decided by women, and 50% of the labour force is female, it seems inevitable something has to give. 

Earlier this week, we reported that Cass Business School, part of City University London, and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has announced a new initiative, running an invitation-only seminar series for outstanding female chief executives from the UK voluntary sector who are open to serving on private sector boards. 

The participants will include RNIB CEO Lesley-Anne Alexander, Action on Hearing Loss CEO Jackie Ballard, Canal and River Trust Vice Chair and Cass Senior Visiting Fellow Lynne Berry OBE, St John Ambulance CEO Sue Killen, Oxfam GB CEO Dame Barbara Stocking, Action for Children CEO Dame Clare Tickell, and Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust CEO Julia Unwin CBE, and will run throughout the summer.  

Lord Davies is due to publish a follow-up report this March, to show progress since last year. However, as of 1 September 2011, only 33 FTSE 100 companies had heeded Davies’ recommendation to set themselves targets for the number of women they aim to have on their boards.  Of these, only ten set targets of greater than a 10% increase. Since the review, 21 women have been appointed to board positions out of a possible 93. This represents 22.5% of all new appointments, some way short of the 33% recommended in the Davies report. 

As a woman I find it difficult not to be a little scornful of the fact that the UK lags so far behind the rest of the world in terms of gender equality. But is there much sense in forcing a regimented percentage of women on to company boards in sectors that are traditionally dominated by men? There is no similar urge to increase the amount of men involved in traditionally female-oriented jobs such as childcare, nursing, or indeed even parenthood. 

The fact is, the ‘Old Boys’ network will always prevail. Research in 2010 revealed that ‘almost half of directors surveyed had been recruited through personal friendships and contacts, only 4% had a formal interview and only 1% had obtained the role through answering an advertisement’. Lord Davies’ research has highlighted that women feel female networks are not as strong, and this, coupled with a lack of flexible working practices, and a perceived, stereotypical, view of women in the workforce, are their greatest barriers to professional development. 

It seems women tend to undervalue their skills and achievements, are less eager to sing their own praises or push themselves for promotion, and more likely to assume someone more confident and aggressive is better for the job. Our attitudes need to change as much as men’s. 

Quotas are not the answer, compulsory or otherwise. Out of 2,654 responses to Lord Davies’ consultation, only 11% recommended the introduction of quotas. Every single woman I interviewed on the subject was against the idea of quotas, with the words ‘tokenism’, ‘favouritism’ and ‘patronising’ forming a vehement and indignant word cloud. 

So, what is the answer? Actually, let’s take a step back. What’s the question? An interesting statistic from Lord Davies’ report, largely unremarked upon, is the fact that 88% of the responses to the consultation were from women. During the course of my research I approached an equal number of men as women for their views on female quotas. 45% responded – all women. Until men concern themselves with the actual question, no answer will be found.