Are UK firms putting women on boards for 'symbolic' value?

More women than ever sit on the boards of Britain's top companies, but representation needs more than a token gesture.

    Some gender rights experts say that many recent board appointments of women are symbolic rather than substantive [Tom Merton/Getty Images]
    Some gender rights experts say that many recent board appointments of women are symbolic rather than substantive [Tom Merton/Getty Images]

    There is a large body of evidence that companies that have higher proportions of women on their boards perform better financially than firms that are less gender inclusive. But a study published on Thursday suggests that Britain's biggest companies are making more token than substantive moves to boost gender diversity in the boardroom.

    Women serve comparatively short tenures on boards of directors, and few make it to the level where they chair the company, according to a new report from Cranfield University's School of Management.

    "Urgent action needs to be taken on addressing this issue," concluded The Female FTSE Board Report 2019. "It is vital that women are not appointed to boards because of the symbolic importance."

    While the proportion of women serving on boards is increasing, only a quarter of FTSE 100 companies have women in executive roles, while women now make up just over a quarter of directors of FTSE 250 firms. 

    "While we see great progress in terms of the number of women on FTSE 350 boards, we are concerned to report that women non-executive directors consistently have shorter tenures on boards and are much less likely to be promoted into the key role of chair," Professor Sue Vinnicombe, the report's lead author, told Al Jazeera.

    "This indicates that appointments of women may be more symbolic than substantive."

    Increase diversity

    Only 8.4 percent of executive directors are women. Women on boards serve an average of 3.3 years compared with 6.6 years for men. And there are still three all-male boards in the country's top 250 companies.

    “While firms continue to acknowledge the importance of increased diversity, it is alarming to know that FTSE 250 firms continue to treat gender equality at board levels as a 'tick-box' attitude," Mitzi Reaugh, the CEO and president of Jaunt XR and a member of the Young Presidents' Organization, told Al Jazeera.

    "Increased diversity could add as much as 150 billion pounds sterling ($190bn) to the UK economy by 2025, yet the average female tenure for executive boards is half that of their male counterparts. This is just one indication of the continued work required to remove gender bias at [the] board level."

      What can you and your company do?

    1. Recognise human bias: Our brains are hard-wired to make biased decisions based on implicit associations, social categorisations and stereotyping.
    2. Learn to mistrust your first impressions: We know that our first impressions lead us to make errors of judgement. 
    3. Create positive images: Research tells us that creating positive images of groups that are prone to bias associations helps to combat negative attitudes and behaviours.
    4. Put some sugar in your tea: When involved in cognitive reasoning, our blood glucose levels drop. 
    5. Take your time: Rushing from one meeting to the next and making decisions under pressure only adds to biased decision-making and a rapid categorisation process that stereotypes and discriminates against some social groups more than others.

    - Paula Whelan, RightTrack Learning

    The FTSE report is now in its 21st year. When it started, just 6.7 percent of FTSE 100 board members were women. There is now a government target that, by 2020, at least 33 percent of all corporate board members should be women.

    Fewer than half of the companies in the top 100 - a total of 48 - have reached that target with one year to go. Home-improvement retailer Kingfisher - the owner of B&Q and Screwfix - and online real estate agent Rightmove lead the pack, with 50 percent of their boards being female.

    Investment management company Schroders also received praise from the report's authors, having boosted female board representation from 27 percent to 45 percent within the year.

    The average age of female company directors is 57, some two years younger than that of their male counterparts, which may also suggest a bias against older women in the workforce.

    "While it is certainly encouraging to see British businesses look to embrace diversity among its executive positions, there really is no point if it's just to say 'we have women on the board'," Sheri Hughes, UK director of diversity and inclusion at recruitment specialists Michael Page, told Al Jazeera.

    "It's evident that organisations have focused on the 'diversity' aspect of D&I. However, the result is that too many are still burying their heads in the sand when it comes to inclusion, which is by far the more crucial element.

    "In a time of economic and political volatility, organisations need to not only be creating a diverse workforce, but ensuring the right people are in the right posts. That will only be achieved by businesses having a distinct inclusion policy in place in order to efficiently attract and, vitally, retain top talent."


    A key route to transitioning from board member to board chair is through chairing board committees. In the FTSE 100 companies, women chair 91 board committees - mostly remuneration and audit committees - while men chair 204.

    "Unconscious bias can often show up in our micro-behaviours - the little things that we say and do which show how we regard those around us," Paula Whelan, head of diversity and inclusion at RightTrack Learning, told Al Jazeera.

    "Some examples of behaviours that people face in the boardroom include being constantly interrupted during meetings or discussions -  or ideas being ignored or dismissed only for the same idea to be accepted when put forward by another colleague."

    This, sadly, may not come as news to many women.

    "It is essential that we address the male-dominated culture embedded in the corporate world," said Reaugh.

    "This starts by redefining 'board-level' candidates to a more encompassing and gender-neutral definition. Reaching the 33 percent government-backed target of women on boards by 2020 is about more than a tick-box approach. It's about leveraging the expertise of female candidates to improve results."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News