Balancing the Board! The evolution of gender equality in UK boardrooms 

Following on from International Women’s’ Day last week, Ebonstone wanted to revisit gender equality within business where the past two decades have witnessed a slow but perceptible shift in the dynamics of boardrooms across the UK. 

While progress has been made, the journey towards achieving gender balance in the corporate echelons remains an ongoing battle. Within the FTSE 350, the stats are looking promising but there is still work to be done. At present, aspiring privately owned, fast growth and AIM listed companies have no formal obligations to address gender equality within their boards and senior management teams. This article delves into some of the challenges still faced by women at board and executive level, and examines the transformation trends in the male-to-female ratio among board members over recent years. 

The boardroom, traditionally perceived as an exclusive enclave of male leadership, has posed numerous challenges for women striving to ascend its ranks. Deep seated gender biases, systemic barriers, and an old boys’ network have long hindered the progress of women in the corporate world. Despite women proving their mettle in various industries, the ascent to board positions has been an uphill battle. 

One persistent challenge is the prevalent notion that diversity initiatives compromise meritocracy. However, numerous studies have shown that diverse boards enhance decision making processes, foster innovation, and contribute to the overall success of companies. The struggle lies in dismantling these ingrained biases and recognising that gender diversity is not just a social imperative but a business necessity. 

Over the past 20 years, there has been a perceptible shift in the composition of UK boardrooms. The turn of the century saw an overwhelmingly male dominated scene, with women occupying only a small fraction of board positions. However, concerted efforts and advocacy for gender diversity have started to bear fruit. 

Government initiatives, such as the FTSE Women Leaders Review (2022) and Davies and Hampton-Alexander Reviews, have set targets for increasing female representation on boards and SLT’s by the end of 2025, acting as catalysts for change. As a result, the percentage of women on FTSE 350 boards has more than tripled, reaching over 40% in February of last year, ranking second to France in international rankings who achieved this through quota legislations across a smaller number of businesses. 

Constituents of the FTSE 350 are reported to be on track to meet the target of 40% women in leadership teams by the end of 2025. While this progress is commendable, challenges persist in achieving parity, especially in executive positions and smaller companies. 

Despite the positive trajectory, several barriers impede the swift attainment of gender balance. Unconscious biases, lack of mentorship opportunities, and the scarcity of visible role models for aspiring female leaders continue to hinder progress. Additionally, the scarcity of women in executive roles – the traditional pipeline to board positions – remains a significant challenge. 

To address these issues, companies must prioritise inclusive leadership, mentorship programs, and transparency in recruitment processes. By fostering an environment that values diversity, businesses can break down barriers and empower women to ascend to the highest echelons of leadership. 

The call for gender diversity in boardrooms is not just a matter of social justice, it is a strategic imperative for businesses in an ever evolving global landscape. Companies with diverse leadership teams are better equipped to navigate complexity, adapt to change, and capitalise on a broader range of perspectives. 

The transformation of gender dynamics in UK boardrooms over the past two decades is a testament to the collective efforts of individuals, organisations, good governance and policymaking under a business-led approach. While progress has been made, challenges persist. Achieving true gender balance requires a continued commitment to dismantling systemic barriers, promoting inclusivity, and recognising that diverse leadership is not just a moral obligation but a competitive advantage. These can start with small steps by ensuring ‘positive action’ is used to actively encourage candidates (gender or other specific groups) towards a post. The selection process must remain the same for every candidate with the successful candidate is appointed on their ability, irrespective of race or gender etc.

You can widen the diversity of staff by using a number of simple techniques, from ensuring the language used in attracting people is inclusive and doesn’t inadvertently use terminology that might deter applications, to flexible working policies and the use of a broad range of media for advertising, including local press, web sites, social media, in addition to using specific organisations and associations that promote equality for protected groups.

As we reflect on the journey so far, it is clear that the path to an equitable boardroom is one that demands perseverance, courage, and a shared commitment to rewriting the narrative of corporate leadership in the 21st century. 

Get in touch with Ebonstone for a free and informal chat about how to improve your gender equality strategy, policy and embedded process. 

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