Not enough women on boards? Or not enough women who are qualified?

14 October 2011

The majority of Britain’s largest companies have so far failed to set targets for the number of women they have on their boards, despite recommendations by Lord Davies.

In February this year, former trade minister Lord Davies presented his "Women on Boards" report following a Government-backed inquiry into diversity in the boardroom. Finding that 18 of the FTSE 100 companies had no female directors at all and that nearly half of all FTSE 250 companies did not have a woman in the board room, Lord Davies recommended that UK companies have at least 25% female board membership by 2015. He called on businesses to announce their goals “to ensure that more talented and gifted women get top jobs” by August this year.

However, the official progress check by the Cranfield School of Management published on Wednesday this week found that just 33 companies in the FTSE 100 have announced that they will aim for Lord Davies’ voluntary target of one in four female board members by 2015. The remaining two thirds are yet to make any statement about what, if anything, they plan to do about increasing female representation.

David Cameron is understood to be writing personally to the FTSE 350 companies that have yet to draw up targets to encourage some action.

But is this enough? Some, like Louise Barnes, chairwoman of fashion brand FennWrightManson, believes that if not enough voluntary progress is made, the Government should implement mandatory quotas, as in Norway where the law requires 40% of firms' directors to be women.

Such a move would be seen as controversial at a time when many businesses are struggling and focussing on recovery, rather than on what some describe as “arbitrary” targets.

There is another issue which threatens to undermine the aim of Lord Davies’ review: the apparent lack of suitable female candidates to do the job.

Samuel Johar, chairman of the headhunter Buchanan Harvey, says: “Most chairmen in the FTSE 100 and 250 are quite keen to have more women on boards. The question is about available women. It’s a supply issue. Companies have not historically mentored or trained women as they have progressed up their careers. There are not enough women at senior levels in companies.”

Andrew Lowenthal, global co-head of the board practice at Egon Zehnder International, an international search firm, agrees: “…when we present female candidates who may not have as much board experience but have the right behaviour and attitudes to be on a board, chairmen are very much up for this. We are working harder and being much more creative and proactive in our searches.”

Perhaps businesses should be encouraged to tackle the supply issue rather than simply focus on figures and statistics.

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