Progress for women on boards faltering: Cranfield study

Further evidence of slowing progress on female board representation has been published this week. Cranfield School of Management’s study also challenges the efforts of FTSE 350 companies.

Business meeting led by a woman
Experts from the school’s International Centre for Women Leaders scrutinised data from the UK’s top 350 companies to show rates of progress towards voluntary targets set in the Hampton-Alexander Review.Echoing figures released earlier this month to mark the mid-point of the government-backed review, the Cranfield School of Management study found a marked difference between FTSE100 and FTSE250 companies.

The FTSE100 and women on boards

In the FTSE 100, the percentage of female non-executive directors is at an all-time high of 35.4%. However, female executive positions flat-lined for a fourth consecutive year at 9.7%.Despite this, the percentage of women on boards has increased from 27.7% in October 2017 to 29% in June 2018, meaning it may be possible to reach the target set by the Hampton-Alexander Review of 33% by the end of 2020.
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The picture is less positive in the FTSE 250. Here the number of female executive directorships actually fell by eight, from 38 to 30, between October 2017 and June 2018. The number of women on boards also increased only marginally (0.9 percentage points) from 22.8% in October 2017 to 23.7% in June 2018.

'Time to think big'

Commenting on the figures, Professor Sue Vinnicombe CBE, Professor of Women and Leadership at Cranfield School of Management, said: “Now, more than ever, is the time for disruptive change. We need to think big and act decisively in order to move the needle.“FTSE 350 companies need to treat gender diversity as seriously as they treat sales, risk management and innovation, otherwise nothing will change.”Professor Ruth Sealy, Director of Exeter Business School’s Centre for Leadership and co-author of the report, underlined the business case for greater female representation in senior decision-making roles: “The lack of diversity amongst executives of so many FTSE companies, even in functions which have balanced or majority female intakes, reveals such poor management.“Organisations must now be bold and decisive in designing senior roles and careers fit for the 21st century in order to optimise the available talent.”

Promoting HR and communications directors to the top table

To explore how companies can close the gaps and meet the voluntary targets, Cranfield’s experts interviewed men and women serving as functional directors on FTSE 100 executive committees – the most senior management rank below board level. These offered insights into career trajectories and leadership experiences so companies can better nurture female leadership talent internally.It found that traditionally, functional heads (HR director, general counsel, communications director) on executive committees have not been considered for board roles. The authors argue perceptions these are “narrow functions” that fail to offer enough operational experience or business acumen should be challenged because they actually represent a significant pool of executive talent that is too-often overlooked.The study offers several recommendations to help boost the female executive talent pipeline. These include recognising:
  • the added value of functional heads on executive committees and considering them more seriously as an important pipeline of executive and non-executive board talent
  • that men and women may express leadership aspirations in different ways to ensure that not only those that naturally ‘claim’ leadership roles are given the chance to step up
  • the critical role sponsors, organisational cultures and inclusive talent processes play in forming and affirming leaders.

'Still too little being done to change cultures'

Dr Elena Doldor, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University and Visiting Fellow at Cranfield School of Management, who led the interviews, said: “Our interviews show that men and women have different experiences of progressing into senior leadership roles.“Developmental organisational cultures and sponsors were critical to the career progression of the senior women we interviewed. Leadership does not emerge in a vacuum.“If companies are serious about developing the female executive pipeline, they should ensure that their organisation truly enables talented women to flourish as leaders.”Sarah Morris, Chief People Officer at Avivia, which sponsors the report, and non-executive director on the Aviva Investors Board, said: “There has been some progress over the last 20 years, and it’s encouraging to see the biggest companies in the UK on track to hit the 33% target. But that is still only 33%.The benefits of greater diversity are clear so now it’s up to the FTSE 250 to increase their ambition. Still too little is being done to change the cultures which prevent talented women staying and rising to the top. We urge companies to act faster, for the sake of their people and their business.”For related news and features, visit our Human Resources section. Find out who won in this year's Relocate AwardsRelocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Access hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online Directory