Women on boards: What progress have we made?

Group of women sitting in boardroom

Article by Helene Usherwood, Partner at Anderson Quigley

In 2021 I wrote an article for WeAreTheCity on how women could break down barriers to claim more roles on boards.

I argued that today’s companies are recognising the importance of cognitive diversity now more than ever, and women should feel empowered to apply for board roles and pride themselves on bringing their unique and fresh perspectives to the boardroom.

Two years later, what progress have we made? In short – some.

The commercial imperative for gender equality has always been clear. It enhances employee engagement, boosts productivity, meets the diverse needs of customers and suppliers, and improves brand reputation.

A recent report reveals the proportion of women in board roles in the UK’s largest listed companies has risen above 40% for the first time.

Likewise, the representation of women on the boards of our biggest companies has slowly been improving in recent years and breaking the 40% mark is a major milestone – but it’s not quite time to celebrate just yet.

This voluntary target – while achieved two years earlier than expected – is still short of the 51% of women in the UK population, and 15% of UK boards still have no female executives at all. Gender imbalance also continues to persist in leadership roles below board level – a report last year showed women only hold roughly one-third of the top 5,200 roles in UK society.

Achieving gender equality in the boardroom was always going to take time – if women haven’t been prepared for these roles, how will they progress and how will we ensure their appointments are ultimately successful and not merely tokenistic?

To work towards better gender representation in the boardroom – and indeed across the entire executive landscape – we must invest in the whole cycle of development and support. The ongoing development of a talent pipeline is essential to bring women through and support them to take on these senior leadership roles.

Understanding the barriers to women’s entry to board roles is the first step. Simply: why aren’t women applying for board roles?

Over the years, I have had many conversations with women (indeed far more than with their male counterparts), who questioned whether they had the skills, experience, and capabilities to take on a senior role. Women must be empowered and proactively encouraged to take these opportunities and claim their space.

Training and development opportunities, organisations supporting employees to take on NED roles, networking occasions or mentoring programmes; all these things have a part to play to help promote and support women who may not have previously considered a board role.

Notwithstanding the current cost of living increase, the upheaval of Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women, with many having to take on more domestic responsibilities and childcare, consequently delaying their professional progression. Studies found that mothers with small children lost work at three times the rate of fathers during the pandemic.

Beyond the localised impact of the pandemic, 70% of British voters believe the cost of childcare keeps mothers at home, and according to the Women’s Budget Group, approximately 1.7 million women are prevented from taking on more hours of paid work due to childcare issues. This imbalance in gendered parental roles has a significant influence on a woman’s ability to strive for high-powered senior roles – and it’s one that must be solved if we’re to achieve real, sustained gender equality in the executive landscape.

Employers need to be bold, agile, responsive, and brave. For example, designing systems that approach children and family as a split responsibility between partners, and not enforcing traditional patterns that too often cause women to sacrifice their career progression.

When we consider what gender equality in the boardroom truly looks like, we must also be comprehensive in our assessment, taking steps to increase the representation of disabled women, women from ethnic minorities, non-gender conforming individuals and others who are currently under-represented in terms of gender.

If you took a cross-section of public sector organisations and looked at their values and their vision, most would say they are trying to provide something to their community. With such a serious goal, organisations need to be wholly representative of the population they serve.

It is well evidenced that by being more reflective of your community, boards achieve diversity of thought, views and attitudes.

The UK’s recent progress proves that voluntary action can be impactful – and measure well against other countries who have implemented mandatory quotas, as the EU introduced last year.

For those women who are already successful in boardroom roles, there is a responsibility to support the women coming up behind them as well. Women must support women; sharing their stories and the benefit of their experiences to show others the way forward.

Companies across the country should feel motivated by this latest progress to continue working to reach total equality in the boardroom. However, diversity goals shouldn’t feel like a chore or a checklist to tick either. It should be a vision that is supported by the entire organisation.

It requires sustainable long-term, systems, and solutions that aren’t performative. Real, long-term change is in our grasp – we must keep moving towards it.

About the author

Helene UsherwoodWith over 20 years of headhunting experience, Helene has been appointed to senior roles within the arts, health, and education fields as well as central and local government. Joining Anderson Quigley in 2018, Helene has established and continues her work specialising in the appointment of executive and non-executive directors in the NHS covering acute, ambulance service, primary care, mental health, and regulatory bodies as well as national organisations and Royal Colleges.

In addition to her work with NHS Trusts, Helene has established Anderson Quigley’s Board Practice, working across all sectors to appoint Chairs and Non-Executive Directors. She has developed excellent networks across the public and private sectors to encourage greater levels of diversity around the Boardroom table. As well as providing bespoke services, advice and guidance to her clients and candidates Helene is highly motivated to provide career advice and guidance to individuals, especially to those who have not previously considered a non-executive opportunity before but who have unique insights and skills to offer.

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