Britain has fallen behind other European countries in efforts to get more women on to company boards, with research showing women occupy less than a quarter of all UK board positions.
With women in 23.2% of board seats last year, Britain falls short of the European average of 25%. That compares with 38.7% in Norway, which has a 40% mandatory target and still tops the table, according to research by European Women on Boards (EWoB), a network which includes Britain’s Institute of Directors.
The UK has fallen to ninth place in the network’s ranking of 12 leading European economies, down from eighth place in 2011, despite having nearly doubled female board representation from 12.2% five years ago when the coalition government adopted a 25% target.
At least a third of UK boardroom positions should be held by women by the end of the decade, a government-backed report from Lord Mervyn Davies said last year, stopping short of recommending enforced quotas.
The only countries behind Britain are Germany (22.6%), Spain (18.8%) and Switzerland, where women make up 16% of boardroom directors. The introduction of mandatory quotas in Italy, Belgium, France and Germany have led to quick boosts in numbers.
The report, which examined the boards of the 600 largest listed European companies between 2011 and 2015, found that the percentage of women on boards also almost doubled across Europe, from 14% to 25%.
In the most dramatic change, Italy achieved 24.6% female board represention last year from only 4.2% in 2011 – the lowest number in Europe then – while Belgium nearly tripled its proportion to 27% from 10%.
Europe’s largest economies also made big improvements, to 34.4% from 18.2% for France, and 22.6% from 13.2% for Germany.
Norway was the only country which recorded a fall in the proportion of women on boards, from 40.2% to 38.7%. Because the 40% quota does not apply to employee representatives, the actual overall percentage of women on Norwegian boards may fall below 40%.
On a more comprehensive measure of female participation at the top of companies Britain has fallen since 2011 from sixth place to eighth. This ranking takes into account therepresentation of women on audit and remuneration committees and the proportion of women as board chair, chief executive and of newly elected directors.
Lady Barbara Judge, who chairs the Institute of Directors and is a member of the EWoB advisory board, said: “British firms will have to reach the government’s ambition for a third of board posts to be held by women by 2020 if we are to have a chance of climbing toward the top of the European table.”
She said a particular worry was slow progress in appointing more women to executive positions. Only 3% of the chief executives of Europe’s 600 largest companies are women – a figure that has barely moved since 2011. She called on boards to consider changing their appointment procedures, for example by making sure a woman is on the interview panel, improving mentoring and demanding more of headhunters.
In some areas, the UK’s performance has been stronger, with female directors in the UK more likely than the European average to serve on the important nomination, remuneration and audit committees. The research also commends UK firms for the quality of their reporting on board appointments.
Across Europe, the proportion of all-male boards has fallen to 5.4% from 21% in 2011.
The report argues legislation has not been the only factor behind increased female appointments. Although Norway has a board gender quota, Sweden and Finland, where more than 30% of director roles are held by women, do not. On the network’s wider ranking, Sweden came top, followed by Norway, Belgium, Finland and France.
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