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UK boardrooms could reach gender equality by 2027

Gender equality at the top of British business is increasing, but more work is needed to bring the UK into line with other European nations when it comes to CEO and board chair representation.

Research by business services firm Deloitte and advocacy group The 30% Club found women now hold nearly a third (30.1%) of all UK board seats, up from one in five (19.4%) in 2019.

This is an improvement on previous years, given between 2016 and 2018, the proportion of women-held board seats only rose 2.4 percentage points (from 20.3% to 22.7%.)

The UK has now entered the top 10 countries for boardroom gender diversity, and, according to the report, could reach parity within the boardroom by 2027.

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Ann Cairns, executive vice chair of Mastercard and global co-chair of the 30% Club, a group that advocates for 30% representation of women at board and executive committee levels, told HR magazine that she was optimistic about gender equality in the UK.

She said: “I see no reason why it wouldn’t keep on accelerating, especially as we start getting women into CEO and chair roles faster.”

The report revealed that globally companies with female CEOs have more gender-balanced boards compared with those led by male CEOs, with women making up an average of 33.5% and 19.4% respectively on either board.

Women account for only 6.1% of CEOs in the UK, up just 1% on 2019.

Cairns added that factors such as the Great Resignation, increased flexible work options, and more scrutiny of companies by shareholders and stakeholders, mean that the pressure is on for companies to change.

If companies don’t respect progress, she said, they will find the pool of talent available to them drying up.

She said: “I think people vote with their feet. They’re going to go to companies that have the lowest pay gap, they’re going to go to companies to give them the best opportunities.

“What you could see is that the companies that are operating well are going to have the most diverse workforces.”

Cairns pointed to a 2019 McKinsey study showing that the top firms for gender representation were 25% more likely to report above average profits than their least gender diverse peers.

She recommended HR leaders look carefully at their talent pipeline.

“If you start losing one or two senior women and your pipeline isn’t deep enough, then you’ve lost your succession to the top.”

Many succession plans, she added, get the balance wrong by failing to consider individuals’ timelines.

“You could have a succession plan ready, with 50% men and 50% women, but where all the men are ready now. 

"If the women are not ready for the next three to five years, you’ve got an imbalanced timeline in your succession plan."

While the UK’s progress has been strong, globally, the proportion of women on boards grew by just 2.8% since 2019, to 19.7%

At this rate, gender parity on boards won’t be seen around the world until 2045.

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of women’s charity the Fawcett Society, told HR magazine that yesterday’s research agreed with their own.

“For women to thrive and reach positions of power, structural inequalities in the workplace need to be addressed.”

Important steps remain to be taken, she said, such as improving childcare provision, offering flexible working as standard, and giving women a fair chance of promotion.

She added: “By having more women, and in particular more disabled women, more women of colour and more LGBT+ people represented at a board level, workplaces will become richer in ideas, experiences and perspectives

“Without action, the pace of change to reach gender parity will remain glacial."


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