· Features

Women on boards in the FTSE 100: Part one

This month marks three years since the publication of the Davies Report into women on boards, and one year before FTSE 100 companies are meant to have reached the 25% target. With latest figures showing 20% of FTSE 100 boards are now female, we ask nine experts about getting women into senior leadership positions

The HR director

Helen Cook, HR director, Corporate Banking, RBS

"The biggest change in the past three years is that this has gone up the agenda for many companies. It’s no longer seen as a women’s issue, but a commercial imperative. Boards with more women have better financial results. That has really crystallised it. “We’ve hit 25% at RBS and it’s been good to see women being put on boards where, through unconscious bias, they wouldn’t have been before. People are opening their minds more.

“It is heartening that people are looking at how to make this more sustainable. My biggest concern is some places will hit their 25% target, and then when that 25% decide to move on, they will be left with a vacuum. But a lot of organisations are really looking at the pipeline and finding the critical mass for tomorrow’s 25%. The ‘boards piece’ is headline-grabbing, not sustainable. This is a long game, not a short one. “The role of HR is to create the agenda to keep the conversation going and make sure we have the appropriate policies and flexibility. But that’s only the architecture. I’ve made it a business issue, not an HR issue. We keep it alive through things like recruitment policy, unconscious bias training and asking difficult questions, but my CEO is the business lead – I put the ownership and accountability there.

“I’m probably a constant nuisance in people’s ears. I am there to be an advocate and an agitator. “This is not a ‘nice to do’, it’s part of business-as-usual. You need to weave it through all the business processes and not treat it as a separate entity. It’s about hardwiring together the compliance side of diversity and the commercial side. That makes it more grounded.”

The academic 

Ruth Sealy, lecturer and researcher, City University London and former lead researcher of Cranfield University’s annual Female FTSE board report

“I’ve been studying women on boards since 2007, but up until the Davies Report, we were just drip-feeding information about how nothing was changing. The report was the catalyst that was intended and Lord Davies has been quite persuasive for many men from his generation – he’s one of the boys.

“Now, 20% of FTSE 100 boards are made up of women. At the time of the report, 25% seemed like a stretch, but now it seems reachable. FTSE 250 firms don’t have a target, but it looks like they, too, could make 25%. I’m encouraged by the progress, but it’s never enough. I don’t think we’ll reach 25% by early next year, but maybe by the end of the year. There’s no room for complacency.

“Some people ask if it matters that most of the increase has come from female non-executive directors (NEDs). I’d rather have more women in executive roles, but you have to start somewhere and we’re further forward than we were a few years ago. NED roles are the low-hanging fruit – quicker and easier to change than executive roles, especially if you don’t have a pipeline of women.

“The natural progression is to look at the executive pipeline because those figures are not changing. It’s getting better, but it’s still pathetic. Only 7% of FTSE 100 executive directors are female. That has a big impact, as it’s so problematic when you look up the organisation and see no one like yourself. “In five years’ time, I’d like this not to be an issue. If we keep going this way, it could be normal to see more balanced boards. One-third is a magical number, and the EU target for 2020. That’s when you will stop seeing women, and start seeing the individuals in the room.”


Angela Spindler, CEO of N Brown Group, a FTSE 250 retailer

“I don’t think men and women should be treated differently, but poor people management practices seem to impact on women more. I put much of my success down to the HR strategies of Mars and Asda [she spent about 10 years at each]. Both were good at identifying talent, taking risks on people and moving them across functions. They also had transparency around what the processes were to get promoted. Women seem to prefer the visibility and transparency of the roadmap, rather than jumping off a cliff into the abyss.

“There is an imbalance in leadership positions that shouldn’t exist. There’s no reason why it does. I feel a sense of responsibility for helping others, but we need to be mindful: do the statistics reflect the failure of the system to bring women through, or attitudes and ambitions? I think it’s somewhere in between. We have to recognise not everyone wants this.

“Whether you’re a man or a woman, getting on in your career is as much about guts as ability. It’s putting your head above the parapet and being prepared to fail. If you wait to be chosen instead of pushing yourself forward, it will take longer and might never happen. No matter how much mentoring there is and how good the processes are, no one’s going to push for you like you will. Sometimes we fail to see that it’s down to the individual.

“As well as individuals taking a risk, companies are too – it requires taking people with less experience into positions. You can’t select from a whole group of women who have been CEOs, because there aren’t any. The recession knocked us back a bit, but overall we’ve seen good progress.

“I’m anti-quotas, but it’s not an easy ‘anti’. The progress is still quite slow. If you wanted a step-change, you could do it with quotas. But attitudinally it creates the wrong dynamic in businesses and around the board table for women and men.”

The driver

Heather Jackson, CEO and founder of An Inspirational Journey, the UK’s only business-led solution seeking to ensure better-balanced and more diverse management and executive teams

“No one can deny the positive changes in the three years since the Davies Report. The under-representation of women at all levels is no longer a diversity or HR issue; it’s a business issue. The gender agenda has gained more respect.

“Since 2011, we have got more women on boards – end of story. And those women are more visible in the press than ever before. They are role-modelling more, showing other women how they manage it. There’s no such thing as can’t. The speed is disappointing, but it’s not that long ago women didn’t have the vote. You can’t right a wrong overnight.

“Three years ago, people thought it was just about women on boards. Now, it’s understood that we can’t get women on boards without looking at the pipeline. That’s an immense movement forward. Companies are actively communicating that they are open to getting more women to the top and will change the culture if that’s what’s holding women back. I haven’t found a FTSE 250 company yet that isn’t looking at unconscious bias training or flexibility.

“However, we’ve got to acknowledge that it’s not all down to the company. One of the biggest barriers is women themselves. We researched 500 women, and 92% said lack of self-belief was the one thing holding them back. There isn’t an equality pay gap; there’s an equality negotiation gap – and this is something women have got to address. For a company, helping women recognise their value goes a long way.

“I think we will reach 25% in 2015, but the Government shouldn’t then intervene [with quotas]. That would be a sad day. It’s not the momentum we should be looking at, but the foundations we’re building. We should be building a society that recognises men and women can work together to solve this.”

Check back tomorrow for Part Two of this piece