In February, Lord Davies released his independent review into Women on Boards. One of the most ambitious targets was that UK listed companies in the FTSE 100 should aim for a minimum of 25% female board member representation by 2015. While the reaction from politicians and business leaders to this was, on the whole, positive, an air of scepticism remained. Many believed that progress towards Davies’ recommendations would be slow and difficult.
In addition to its more concrete recommendations, the report also asserted that FTSE 350 companies should set themselves new and challenging targets. These included goals for 2013 and 2015 to ensure that a higher number of qualified and talented women have access to senior-level jobs. Davies and his panel also called on businesses to make public the proportion of women sitting at board level.
While the report was undeniably admirable, many leading professionals and activists were cynical about what it would truly achieve. After all, the review did state the obvious to an extent and no concrete action was taken on the matter.
At the time, Stephen Alambritis, Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:
“At the current rate of change it will take 73 years for women to achieve equal representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. We need to speed up progress. This is not just a moral issue. Our businesses are paying a penalty; there is evidence that more diverse boards take better and more responsible decisions.
“Clearly, we agree with Lord Davies that business needs to put its house in order. We also agree that it would be better for companies to take action themselves without government having to impose quotas upon them. We do, however, need them to demonstrate real progress on this issue – and not just in relation to women but in terms of diversity of all kinds. ”
However, the results since Lord Davies published his review have been unexpected. Since the report put the issue of boardroom equality back on the political agenda, FTSE 100 firms have actually doubled the number of women at senior board level.
The Observer recently reported that in the last half year, the UK’s top organisations have hired a total of 18 women at board level. This represents an overall figure of 31 per cent of all appointments over the last six months.
This seems to be positive news for female professionals, particularly as if the voluntary targets set by Lord Davies are met, there will be no official call for the introduction of quotas. I personally am among the number of campaigners opposed to quotas, as I strongly feel that businesses should be hiring and promoting women on their own merits.
In fact, campaigners have expressed both relief and optimism at this news. For example, Dr Ruth Sealy, deputy director of the international centre for women leaders at Cranfield School of Management, told the Observer: “Things are progressing and it’s great that this is happening.”
Speaking at the time, Lord Davies called for a radical overhaul of the attitude of the UK’s companies. He said: “Over the past 25 years the number of women in full-time employment has increased by more than a third and there have been many steps towards gender equality in the workplace, with flexible working and the Equal Pay Act, however, there is still a long way to go.
Currently 18 FTSE 100 companies have no female directors at all and nearly half of all FTSE 250 companies do not have a woman in the boardroom. Radical change is needed in the mindset of the business community if we are to implement the scale of change that is needed.”
“This is not about aiming for a specific figure and is not just about promoting equal opportunities but it is about improving business performance. There is growing evidence to show that diverse boards are better boards, delivering financial out-performance and stock market growth.”
British Land, GlaxoSmithKline, Royal Bank of Scotland and Whitbread have all appointed women to their boards since February – but while the changes have been noticeable, they are hardly radical. While these businesses have indeed increased the number of women at board level, that number was so small to begin with that much bigger strides need to be made. While it’s encouraging to see some action being taken, more companies need to be taking note and following suit. Not just for the sake of equality, but, as Lord Davies observed, for the good of British business as a whole.