Boardroom equality as far away as ever

Dec 07 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

For all Europe's much-vaunted progress on gender equality, its boardrooms remain dominated by men. And with women accounting for fewer than a tenth of board-level positions, it will take almost 60 years to bridge the divide unless big changes are made.

A study by the European Professional Women's Network has revealed that a mere 8.5 per cent of corporate boardroom seats within Europe's top 300 companies were held by women last year.

A book published by the network, "Women on Boards Ė Moving Mountains", has also analysed research by consultancy Mercer into the profiles of the 100 top women, compared with their male counterparts.

Across Europe there is a significant disparity in female representation at board-level, the research found.

Scandinavian countries led the field, largely thanks to their strong diversity legislation, with Norwegian companies able to boast of 28.8 per cent women board membership and Sweden 22.8 per cent.

At the other end of the spectrum, Spain reported a tiny 4.1 per cent and Italy was even worse, at 1.9 per cent.

At the current rate of change, European boardrooms would not see equality between genders until 2065, it added.

The network's Mirella Visser and Annalisa Gigante, authors of the book, said change was possible, particularly as there was recognition that greater diversity made business sense, but what was needed in practice was concrete steps and firm decision-making.

"Companies and individual women should both develop business strategies to capture and fully utilise the talents of professional women for the betterment of their organisations," they stressed.

When it came to comparing the backgrounds of Europe's top 100 board-level women and men, significant differences were found in terms of visibility, age and routes to the top.

Overall, the male board members were highly visible and maintained a public profile.

They also tended to be older and had a route to the top that included more expatriate postings

Interestingly, male and female executive board members had an equivalent proportion of line management positions in their career, the analysis found.

There were also significant differences in the type of board position held by women.

Slightly more than a tenth of the top 100 women held executive board positions, against more than a third of the men.

Just eight per cent of the women were heads of committees, versus 27 per cent of the men, it added.

The network recommended that the best ways to improve diversity were through the use of quotas, having more than three women in a team or appointing female chief executives.

Women who had already made it to the top were generally more likely to create diverse boards and executive teams, provide advice to women who aspired to board membership and discuss the need for board training.

Janine van den Nieuwenhuysen , worldwide partner at Mercer, said: "By analysing the inhibitors and drivers that dictate current levels of female representation at the board level, this study provides much needed insight, not only for those aspiring to reach the top in their chosen profession, but provides a useful benchmark for organisations with ambitions to increase gender diversity at the board level."