Money Matters

How business can put the missing women in the boardroom

November 14, 2016
By Margot James

Theresa May as UK prime minister, Hillary Clinton running for the US presidency, Angela Merkel as German chancellor: more and more, it seems public leadership roles are being occupied by women. But is this true in business too?

Female representation in business has always been close to my heart: I spent two-thirds of my career working in communications, often alongside talented and accomplished women. But when I became more senior I often found I was the only woman at the table.

When we draw on men and women from a variety of ethnic and social backgrounds, it makes a difference. We all benefit from more diverse perspectives, which encourage better-informed dialogue and decision making. It also builds trust when those at the top table reflect those who work for them and the customers they serve.

There has been progress: in the past five years, the number of women on the boards of the FTSE 100 top UK quoted companies has more than doubled to nearly 27 per cent. But this is not good enough; for women to truly be represented in business they need to be in the most senior executive positions. I would love to see the story of Paula Nickolds - joining the John Lewis department store chain as a graduate trainee and working her way up to managing director - to be more commonplace. Sadly, her story is remarkable in part because it is so rare.

Today, Sir Philip Hampton and Dame Helen Alexander publish a report that analyses this divide                     . For the first time, figures on the number of women at the top in both the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 have been collected. Its findings are fascinating: nearly a third of FTSE 100 senior appointments in 2015 went to women; a fifth of FTSE 100 companies have at least a third of senior positions filled by women. In short: there is a lot more to do to ensure women are properly represented.

We know women are aspirational, with more of them enrolling in higher education than men - but what is business doing to nurture and develop that talent? Few shots at senior roles; often facing discrimination if they want children; and, even when they are happy in work, in many cases earning less than men doing the same work. It is hardly an incentive.

The myth is that women do not stick it out to the very top; the reality is that they do, but they often miss out on promotion. The Hampton-Alexander review found that there is a higher proportion of women directly reporting to executive committees in the FTSE 100 than on the committees themselves. Often, a lack of confidence is the reason why women do not put themselves forward for senior roles.

Britain fares well internationally: we are sixth in the world for female representation in boardrooms and those above the UK mostly have mandatory quotas in place. But quotas and comparisons are tricky. We do not want to make gender equality a tick-box exercise or to negate the size of each country’s stock market indices; the FTSE 100 - let alone FTSE 350 - is much bigger than many other indices.

This is a delicate science but it is one that requires our attention. I urge businesses to look at what is happening at all levels of their organisation: set expectations high and, above all, make sure women are able to secure the experience, development and support they need from an early stage in their careers, through the childbearing years and beyond.

I will encourage more businesses to be involved in the Future Boards Scheme - a new training partnership - but the benefits should be obvious. Having women on boards is not just good for women; it is good for business and it is good for society at large. I want to see a thriving, ambitious and - perhaps most importantly - a more inclusive leadership as we build an economy that works for all.