Britain's glass ceiling gets thicker


Far from seeing an increase over the past year, the number of women sitting on the boards of Britain's largest companies has actually fallen. But could the very rules designed to boost boardroom diversity be partly to blame?

The continuing failure of women to break into the top echelons of British business has been highlighted in Cranfield University School of Management's annual Female FTSE report.

The report shows that the total number of women directors of the country's 100 largest public companies fell from 121 in 2005 to 117 in 2006, reversing several years of steady increases. .

Moreover, the number of female executive directors is only 15 out of a possible 391 – less than four per cent compared to the 46 per cent that women represent in the overall UK workforce.

Likewise, only 12.5% of new positions were filled by women compared with 17% in the previous two years.

There are few signs, either, of a new generation of women waiting their turn in the next tier of senior personnel for promotion to the top table.

Only 53 FTSE 100 companies have any women on their executive committee (the senior team chaired by the CEO), 30 have all male committees and the remaining 17 refused to supply any information.

The exceptions were few. Companies with the highest percentage of female Board directors include first place Astra-Zeneca with four female NEDS and second place British Airways with three NEDS.

Lloyds TSB not only distinguishes itself with a 27 per cent female board, including two female executive directors and two female non-executive directors female executive committee, but also has a 33 per cent female executive committee.

Reuters joins Lloyds TSB at the top of the executive committee index with its 33 per cent female executive committee, as well as having two female NEDS.

Val Singh, the report's co-author, said: "The research highlights a glass door to the executive boardroom with a significant lack of women in the senior executive committee, the next generation of female executive and non-executive directors."

But one reason for this, she said, is that the 2003 Higgs report on corporate governance has led to a reduction in executive directorships and hence more competition for the fewer executive seats.

Since holding an executive directorship is often seen as a vital qualification for non-executive roles, this has acted to the detriment of women.

"The research highlights a glass door to the executive boardroom, with a significant lack of women in the senior executive committee, the next generation of female executive and non-executive directors. It was therefore particularly encouraging to note the recent appointment of Cynthia Carroll as CEO of Anglo-American," she added.

On a more positive note co-author Professor Sue Vinnicombe pointed to the pool of talented women in the boards and senior executive committees of the FTSE 250 companies. All are named in the report in the hope that they will be seen as a talent pool for posting in the future.

"The challenge is how to connect these talented women to the many chairmen who are actively looking for high quality women to join their boards," Vinnicombe said.

But as she admitted, "the latest survey is disappointing – everyone expected the numbers to be better."