Cranfield reports shows UK board diversity progress stutters

The annual Female FTSE Board Report by Cranfield University School of Management is published today and shows almost no improvement in women’s participation at board level in the UK’s top 100 companies.

There are just 135 women among 1,076 directors (or 12.5 per cent) in the FTSE 100. Top of the diversity league is Burberry, three of whose eight directors are women, including chief executive Angela Ahrendts, who came 13th in the FT’s 2010 global ranking of top women chief executives. Diageo is the only FTSE company to have four women directors.

The report shows that the picture is even worse in the FTSE 250, where 52.4 per cent of companies have no women at all on their boards and the overall percentage of female directors is just 7.8 per cent. However, the report does reveal FTSE 100 banks have added female directors in the past year.

Dr Ruth Sealy, co-author of the report, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday morning, talked of a “cocktail of reasons” for the poor progress, including lazy search practices that fail to provide balanced shortlists. But, she said, the key to increasing diversity is the determination of the chairmen of company boards. This echoes the findings of research by McKinsey, the advisory firm, discussed in an earlier post.

As Lord Davies of Abersoch prepares to report to the government in February on proposals to improve board diversity in the UK, these figures must bring some form of legislative pressure closer. An alternative to controversial quota systems is the “comply or explain” principle that would require all FTSE 350 companies to explain board composition that falls below 20 per cent women.

One common excuse presented by companies with low female board representation is the lack of talented women with appropriate experience. The Cranfield report includes a list of “100 women to watch” drawn from the 2,551 women who serve on the executive committees of the UK’s FTSE 350 – a growing pipeline of female talent.

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