A change is (still) gonna come

In her final column for us, Astus CEO Frances Dickens takes a look back at two years of progress in advancing the representation of women in British business

A change is (still) gonna come

Throughout the two years I’ve been writing this column for Elite Business, I’ve tried to strike a positive note as I’ve argued that this country’s boardrooms would benefit from the inclusion of more female directors. I’ve regularly shared the evidence that diversity makes good business sense and focused on interesting initiatives that encourage this progression.

So it’s great to be able to report, in my last column, on the appointment of Alex Mahon as the new CEO of Channel 4. She’s the second woman to run one of this country’s major broadcasters – after Dawn Airey at Channel 5 a few years ago – and a great choice to guide such a culturally influential business. She follows a few high-profile female appointments in the last few months – Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior and Paula Nickolds as the first female CEO of John Lewis.

This flurry of promotions is a good representation of the direction of travel now. The Davies Report, published in 2015, showed that the four-year Davies Commission had succeeded in encouraging real change in business equality at the top levels. When it reported its final data in 2015, there were no longer any all-male boards in the FTSE 100 and 23.5% of UK directors at those companies were female – near double the 12.5% that held these posts four years previously. It didn’t quite achieve its target of 25% but Davies was still right to flag the change up as a ‘tremendous achievement’. He was also right to provide some guidance for future action – bringing more women into FTSE 350 firms and making sure that the diversity of exec – as well as non-exec – boards was boosted.

In the years since, the inspirational 30% Club has been working to ensure that its target of 30% of FTSE boards comprising women is achieved but progress has been slow. Latest figures show the figure has crept up for the FTSE 100 (26.9%) but the FTSE 350 remains at 23.6% female representation. Depressingly, there are still eight companies in the FTSE 250 that have an all-male board of directors.

So progress is mixed. On one hand, we see a succession of impressive women taking the helm of some of our biggest brands, as exemplified by the three women I mentioned above. There is no doubt that we are operating in a landscape that is socially different to that in 2011 or even when I first starting writing here in 2015.

But it’s important too that we acknowledge that women continue to struggle to make their voices heard in these influential corporate seats. Interestingly, at around the time of the Davies report, another study, this time from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), made the point that “the good work of a forward-thinking minority masks that many top businesses are still only paying lip service to improving the representation of women on boards”.

Sexism is still rife in the boardrooms of UK plc, just as it is in wider society. Last year’s Rio Olympics was a great example of how some amazing achievements by women at the (literal) top of their game were undermined by patronising comments from both sexes that made assumptions about their gender. The murder of Jo Cox last year and the disgraceful way some of the Women’s Equality Party candidates were treated in the run-up to the General Election shows that misogyny is sadly still a force in today’s Britain. The rising prominence of women in powerful positions in the UK is prompting some that feel threatened by this to strike out spitefully.

On the corporate scene, there’s no doubt that some of our less progressive companies still regard female representation as just another compliance box to tick. But more fool them. Because evidence is piling up now that proves that diverse boards improve performance. And, increasingly, even businesses in tech and financial services are getting this message, broadening out the experience of their board members.

Perhaps the biggest cause for hope though, as I sign off from bringing you these regular diversity updates, is in the experience of younger business women. A Coutts report found a huge rise in numbers of woman entrepreneurs in the under-35 age group; 38% of entrepreneurs of that age are now female, compared to just 16% of older entrepreneurs that are made up by women. This says to me that the younger generation, those probably brought up by working mums, are creating a more equal business society by setting up their own. Good for them. But we need to ensure that these ambitious young women are supported by government initiatives that facilitate their goals in ways that feel right for them.

As with most things in life, real change on an issue as big as this takes time. I shall continue to push for greater equality in business – for all marginal groups – and look forward to a business environment of the future that is inclusive for all. 

Frances Dickens
Frances Dickens

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