While government figures released earlier this month show that female representation on FTSE boards is on track to hit 33% by next year,  a new report indicates that those same boards are appointing women for largely symbolic value.
Published on 11 July, The Female FTSE Board Report 2019: Moving Beyond the Numbers  found that women on FTSE boards serve shorter tenures than men – with female non-executive directors (NEDs) sitting on average for 3.8 years, compared to the male average of five years – and are less likely to be promoted to senior roles.
Published by Cranfield University’s School of Management, the report also uncovered issues with diversity among female FTSE board appointees, noting that just 11% are from black, Asian or other minority ethnic backgrounds.
Cranfield University professor of women and leadership Sue Vinnicombe said: “Since we started our report more than two decades ago, we have seen the number of women on boards increase from 6.7% to 32%. There has clearly been great progress on the numbers front – but scratch beneath the surface and we suggest that some companies have simply been ticking a box. There is mounting evidence that women have shorter tenures and are less likely to be promoted into senior roles than their male counterparts. The number of women in chair roles has decreased this year.”
She stressed: “We need urgent action to make sure that women are being appointed to boards on and recognised for their contribution, and not simply for symbolic value.”
Report co-author Dr Doyin Atewologun – director of Cranfield’s Gender, Leadership and Inclusion Centre – echoed Vinnicombe’s remarks, noting: “Although it is positive to see more women on boards, we need to be sure that we are not only advancing progress for a certain group of women, but are truly pushing board diversity in every sense.”
Quoted in the report, International Women’s Forum UK chair Julie Goldstein said: “It is good to see positive progress in the increased number of women on FTSE boards, but the significant discrepancy between NED and executive representation in both the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies clearly requires further attention and action.”
She added: “We should applaud those FTSE 100 companies who have made concerted efforts to improve the ratio of women on their boards and are no doubt seeing improvement in their bottom-line performance. There now needs to be a focus on modifying the board culture in other companies to enable more women not only to participate but to take leadership roles, such as chair and senior independent director.”
How should FTSE leaders modify their board cultures to enable those developments?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “One of the many problems with putting women on boards for – as Vinnicombe says – tokenistic reasons is that they soon become incredibly isolated. And what you really need on a board, to have impact, are allies. You need someone sponsoring you. You need support for your ideas. You need someone who can help your voice to be heard. Now, that doesn’t just apply to women – but men on boards will be far more likely to have those alliances, because it’s taken as read that they are not there for tokenistic or symbolic reasons.”
With that in mind, Cooper notes: “In order to change the culture of these boards, we need a much more explicit articulation of the value that female members are bringing, and not even broach the notion that they have been appointed symbolically. There must be zero tolerance for any conversation along the lines of, ‘Well, she’s only here because we need to make up the numbers.’ Instead, the discussion must revolve around how that individual will best represent and carry out the function and duties required of them.
“We don’t have a role called ‘tokenism’ – so why should we look at any woman on a board and think that’s what she represents? And why should female board members be so isolated, when boards operate collectively?”
She adds: “The Cranfield report suggests that female board members remain isolated. They’re not getting the support they need, and they’re not being identified as potential candidates for important, future roles – for example, ‘chair-in-waiting’. It takes a real willingness among boards to shut down any suggestion between members that someone has been appointed purely because they’re female. But that is what must be done.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity