The HR Juggler

Women and Boards

Posted on: March 20, 2012

So, last week Cranfield published their latest report on women in UK boardrooms and confirmed that women now make up 15.6% of the boards in FTSE 100 companies, compared to 12.5% last March and a government target of 25% of female directors by 2015. In addition, the number of all-male FTSE 100 boards dropped to 13 from 2010’s figure of 21, and, for the first time, a minority of FTSE 250 companies now have all-male boards. Perhaps interestingly, or inevitably, the report found that a high proportion of female appointments to FTSE boards have been made despite those women having no prior FTSE board experience and that 72% of new FTSE 250 female directors had no prior FTSE experience.

Coverage of this topic has ranged from praising it as a record high in business, a general consensus that more needs to be done to achieve the targets set and speculation on the reasons that we have still have so comparatively few women at this level in business, including the old chestnuts of cost of childcare, speed of return from maternity leave and availability of flexible working…all of which are valid points, but I am not wholly convinced that they represent the full picture. Further unpicking of the report also questions whether the rise is as dramatic as it seems, or whether in fact the real situation is plateauing, given that once you break the figures into Executive and Non-Executive Directors, only 5,5% of Executive Director roles are women. That matters, as the Exec Directors are internal, have far more involvement with day-to-day running of the business and generally a much stronger operational influence.

It is also worth mentioning that there is a similar proliferation of female Non-Execs in Norway, whose government introduced legislation requiring companies to have 40% of female Directors and gave them five years to comply. This should in no way detract from the achievement that they have made; but given that an individual can hold several Non-Exec Director roles concurrently for many different organisations, I am not wholly convinced that the gender balance in the boardroom is quite as equal as it might appear at first glance. 

Much as I find the attention given to these stats faintly depressing, the reality is that they also make me uneasy. It becomes so simple to make assumptions and generalisations on figures alone, targets that are devoid of context. I can’t help wondering where the value is in a pure statistic of the number of women on boards, without any sense of what types of role they are doing, what the experience of working in that environment is like, whether they believe that they are perceived as equal to their male colleagues, whether gender equality is an issue for them. Also, what about the next level down? If we are serious about increasing the number of women in board level roles, then should there not be some form of measurement of senior managers within organisations? Or indeed how people progress through the business, how much investment is given to their development, how valued they are, financially or otherwise. Some human element to the numbers, a meaningful and long-term investment and commitment to equality of opportunity.

My perspective on this cannot help but be influenced by the fact that I work in an organisation where there is an even gender split at the most senior level of the business. Diversity matters hugely, but it’s not just about making sure that there is a strong representation of women at senior levels, it is about enabling people who are from all types of background to thrive and succeed. Giving individuals the chance to shine and then appointing the best person for the job. In my view, if only certain types of individuals are able to succeed and be promoted in an organisation, it is not so much a gender issue as a cultural one…and there isn’t any amount of statistics and external measurement that will improve that culture, if the current leadership is not bought into effecting change.

So, once the headlines have receded, we are left with just numbers, which may be getting better, or may be staying mostly the same. I would absolutely like to see more women on boards, companies reflecting more accurately the diversity of customers they serve and a truly level playing field for all individuals to develop and progress. But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that the numbers show this yet or that the issue lies merely in having senior bums on seats. We have a long way to go and some organisations and sectors need to do a lot of figuring out how to get there…and in some cases, whether they even want to.

I would love to hear from you…what do you think?


13 Responses to "Women and Boards"

I have a simplistic view of all of this, in that if you are good enough you should be on the board, regardless of gender. Quotas do noone any favours and undermine the fine job that many do. Promotion by merit only s my utopia!!

Excellent points. Wholeheartedly agree that this is, first and foremost, a cultural issue. Top management will generally have some sort of a succession plan (however formal or informal!) and invariably it seems to be that those who fit the culture are first in line.

The challenges for top leadership who are serious about appointing the best person for the job are 1. taking a balanced view of what the business needs (I believe this has to include listening to employees and customers) and challenging the status quo; and 2. providing appropriate, fit for purpose ongoing development and mentoring for senior management.

Thanks for a great post Alison – and +1 to your comments Sinead.

It’s the points about culture and true diversity that really resonate with me. What culture are we creating to ensure that everyone can bring their natural strengths and talents to the business and thrive? How are we creating a boardroom of such diversity that we are more effective and have greater understanding of customer and employee needs?

The stats say one thing, culture usually says another.

Interesting post especially the bit about understanding the numbers, which may suggest the figures are less impressive.

It would be great to know more about how women on boards are perceived, if they feel their voice has the weights of the male counterparts and isn’t just a token female opinion. I guess this would differ in different organisations.

It seems logical that most women getting these appointments haven’t had any previously, given that the change is only gradually coming into place. I wonder therefore if this is perceived as positive discrimination towards women?


I fully agree with the comments and observations made by Alison and others about the way a focus on changes to the numbers of women on boards can be a distraction when it comes to judging real and sustainable change regarding the traction of inclusive talent management.
Numbers need to be judged against a litmus test on culture change. It is this which will determine the way in which boardroom diversity will grow

[…] Chisnell has been digging into some of the statistics on female board members. The headline figures show some improvement. [W]omen […]

Alison, I was going to leave a comment here but, the more I looked at this, the more strands there were so I ended up doing a whole post!

A great post and one which has so many elements to debate.
Targets, culture and context are the words that stand out to me. Chasing targets in isolation at best does not deal with the underlying causes and at worst will make things worse as individuals without the level of experience and skills required may find themselves on Boards leading in some cases to a lower level of performance and credibility – whilst on the surface all is well, this is really the tip of the iceberg. These appointments should be on merit, providing the opportunity to progress and dealing with some of the cultural issues at play starts well before the board appointment and is only masked by targets. We are in a cultural position where men predominantly hold positions on boards – is that because men prefer to work with other men? If culture and history were reversed and women were predominantly on boards we may be having the same debate? Social grouping are also at play…There are so many facets to this debate.
Any change will take a long time but the targets cannot be the strategy or the only measure…

Hi Alison,

Congrats on being in March top blogs as rated by HR Zone – Great post!

It reminded me of this short video by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox about how promoting women is a specific skill.

Here is the link

In this video Avivah describes a situation (that I imagine is quite common) where a women, even when offered a top spot shied away from it in the fear that she could not possibly fulfill what was expected of her, when trying to juggle career as well as family etc. Even though she knew she was capable.

The story Avivah describes is how the CEO responds – in a very different way to what is probably the ‘norm’ and how this impacted the business results.

I think it demonstrates that perhaps what is needed is not quotas – I have never been a fan of ‘numbers out of context’ as you put it.

Support for CEO’s / Directors etc to help them see not only what woman can add but also to have the insight to challenge the limiting beliefs of the business and perhaps the women themselves, to make it possible for women to make their greatest contribution possible without it damaging their personal / family life.

The ability to foresee and clear such obstacles is an important skill for leaders and managers to develop at all levels.

[…] Some of us are talking about the important things. […]

[…] Alison Chisnell: Women and Boards In an outstanding piece of data analysis entitled Women and Boards, UK HR Director Alison Chisnell looks behind the headlines around Cranfield’s recent research on the numbers of women in UK boardrooms. Seeking to look beyond the numbers, Alison says: “Diversity matters hugely, but it’s not just about making sure that there is a strong representation of women at senior levels, it is about enabling people who are from all types of background to thrive and succeed.” […]

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