A lot of progress has been made when it comes to women taking positions of power on the boards of influential companies. You only have to go back thirty years to find an environment in which the idea of a woman serving as a CEO was almost unthinkable, but times are finally changing. It’s no longer an oddity to see women in boardrooms in 2021 – it’s an expectation. As is so often the case with great social change, though, there’s more to do than has already been done. Women are taking an increasing number of seats on boards – but not enough.
If you follow the UK government’s publications and declarations on the issue, everything is on track. According to their assessment, one-third of all board members in the UK were women as of the end of 2020. That sounds like an impressive achievement when you consider where we were at the start of the century. However, even compared to a single decade ago, the picture looks very different. Back in 2011, there were 152 boards among FTSE 350 companies that didn’t have a single female member. By the end of 2020, there was only one. However, many of those boards have appointed a single female member – possibly as a token gesture – and gone no further.
Aside from the frustration of so many male-dominated companies making token gestures rather than implementing genuine change, there’s also reason to doubt the government’s statistics. Within the past month, an independent organization called “Women On Boards UK” has completed its own study of the makeup of boards and executives across the United Kingdom. The group studied 261 companies. Of those 261 companies, only 48% were found to have a female representation of at least one third in the boardroom. The figure of one third is supposed to be a mandatory requirement. It’s apparent from the study that a worrying number of companies are ignoring the mandate altogether.
The 261 companies that appear in the study are drawn from outside the FTSE 350, which probably explains why there’s such a discrepancy between the government’s figures and the organisation’s findings. This indicates that while the top 250-or-so listed companies in the UK are doing what’s expected of them, those lower down the order aren’t keeping up. While it might be tempting to write these companies off as “small fry,” that isn’t the case. Between them, they have a combined stock market value of over sixty billion pounds. These are high-profile, successful firms, but they’re languishing behind the times when it comes to welcoming women into the boardroom. The most astonishing – and worrying – find is that 98 companies listed in the FTSE All-Share have either one female board director or none at all. The 21st century doesn’t appear to have arrived yet within those companies.
There are, of course, outliers. The top-earning CEO in the entire country is Denise Coates, who works within the gambling industry. The gambling industry has changed and progressed faster than many of the tech-orientated industries around it, though. Since online slots began to replace smoky old casinos and bingo halls, more women have shown an interest in both playing online slots and working within the companies that make or supply them. We’ve even seen a few female-interest specialist online slots websites launched, with Rose Slots CA being one of the most recent examples. If as many British firms were as willing to bet on women as online slots websites are, we probably wouldn’t have a problem. Unfortunately, we do. The story of Denise Coates is an inspiring one for the female leaders of the future, but at the moment, she’s the exception rather than the rule.
The more you read the “Women on Boards” report, the more shocking its contents become. The government is likely to dispute its findings, but if the researchers are correct, half of all British firms still have male-only leadership in 2021. That compares to a mere eight per cent within the FTSE 350. Seven per cent of all firms have female CEOs. A further sixteen per cent have chairwomen rather than chairmen. The pattern that repeats itself throughout the report is that the most prominent firms are doing a good job of leading the way, but the message fails to get through to the businesses beneath them. As the “one third” requirement is precisely that – a requirement – it will be interesting to see whether what action, if any at all, is taken against companies that simply refuse to move with the times.
As grim as some of this reading makes, we want to return to the theme of the beginning of this article. Progress is still being made. It’s just that the pace of progress is slower than it ought to have been. The last time detailed studies were performed was October 2015, at which point female representation within the boardrooms of FTSE 350 companies was a mere 21.9%. An increase of twelve per cent in six years is commendable, even if the improvement has only happened within the most successful and high-profile companies. That being said, there are still issues with gender pay gaps even within these companies. A woman working for an FTSE 350 company is likely to be paid around 20% less than a man working in the same role. The national average is a mere 13.7%. Women may have been allowed into the boardroom, but they’re still not being treated with an even hand. Women of colour are even less likely to get a fair deal, but a separate report on that matter is being drawn up and should be available soon.
The “Women on Boards UK” group would like to push for the target to be increased from one-third to forty per cent by the end of 2030. That should be easily achieved by some of the companies that are already ahead of schedule, but it seems impossible for those who are yet to take any kind of meaningful action whatsoever. Action must now surely be taken to look into discrimination within the firms who are so far away from the target. It’s impossible to think that a board that contains only one woman (or none at all) has been selected fairly. If it hasn’t, laws may have been broken.
Things are definitely better for women in the workplace than they used to be, but women still get a raw deal compared to men. Until that changes, pressure groups like “Women on Boards UK” will always be necessary.