Women have one in five chance of joining board

Companies that fail to meet targets would be required to give priority to female candidates. Picture: Jane Barlow
Companies that fail to meet targets would be required to give priority to female candidates. Picture: Jane Barlow
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WOMEN have at best a 20 per cent chance of landing a non-executive position in the boardrooms of Britain’s biggest companies, according to research unveiled yesterday by the University of Edinburgh.

The study, which covered hundreds of companies over a 14-year period, found that if a woman gives up a non-executive post then there is a 20 per cent chance she will be replaced by another woman.

However, if the outgoing non-exec is a man, the likelihood of a female appointment falls by half to just 10 per cent.

Authors of the study – carried out by Edinburgh, Sheffield and Stanford universities – say a lack of public scrutiny over the appointment of non-executives is allowing historic gender biases to continue.

Although relatively few in number, female executive directors were found to be paid on a par with men. Yet women holding non-executive posts were paid 8 per cent less than men.

Report author Brian Main, of the university’s business school, said the high profile of executive pay had led remuneration committees to eradicate any bias at the top level. Yet there is less transparency with non-executive appointments.

“It is not obvious who is competing for the jobs, so you have no sense of who is in the field,” said Main, pictured right.

“But the decision to appoint a woman should be independent of whether it is a man or a woman who has stepped down.”

The findings come just weeks after the European Parliament voted for proposals to force big companies to fill 40 per cent of their non-executive board posts with women.

Companies that fail to meet the target by 2020 would be required to give priority to female candidates and could face sanctions such as exclusion from European Union (EU) funds.

The UK opposes the move in favour of the Davies Report, which calls for minimum female representation of 25 per cent by 2015. This is being implemented on a voluntary basis.

Critics argue that mandatory quotas could lead to the appointment of women more likely to rubber-stamp the opinions of the male majority, rather than taking an active part in board business. It could also create the sense that any woman – no matter how well-qualified – is just there to “make up the numbers”.

There is also evidence from countries such as Norway – one of the first to adopt female quotas – that this can constrain candidate selection.

Supporters insist forceful action is required, as change is coming too slow. According to latest figures, men make up more than 85 per cent of non-executives in the EU. In the UK, the figure stands at 78 per cent.

Main said his study found no evidence to suggest that having more women in the boardroom increases a company’s productiveness or profitability.

However, he said there is a moral argument for more female appointments to firms’ boards.