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By Rosana Mirkovic, head of SME policy, ACCA

With such unprecedented focus on this topic throughout 2012, it’s difficult to imagine how such a high level of interest and activity can be sustained. Will the record increase in female NED appointments continue?

A voluntary target of 25 per cent of directors to be female by 2015 has been set in the Lord Davies report and it seems that companies are heading in the right direction towards achieving it – women now account for 17.4 per cent of the FTSE 100 board directors.

And what will happen with the European Commission proposals? In November the EC published its much awaited proposal for there to be at least 40 per cent women non-executive directors on the boards of big-listed companies by 2020. There is still debate on what this means in practice and to what extent will this translate into quotas for companies. It would appear the proposals deliberately avoid the term ‘quotas’ and instead refer to a 40 per cent ‘objective’, with unspecified sanctions against companies flouting the rules.

It is clear that over the past two years the gender equality debate has by and large been dominated by the women on board debate. It certainly has some high profile ambassadors. What we must ensure now is that we use this momentum to broaden the discussions.

We know that women are under-represented at senior levels in virtually all areas of economic activity and especially those with high financial rewards. While higher numbers of female non-executive directors would go some way towards addressing this, there is scarce evidence that it would change anything else.

In fact the Norway example that is so often used for the quota argument shows that despite 35 per cent of female NEDs on Norway’s publicly listed company boards, there has been no increase of female representation at the CEO level.

The UK is heading in the same direction – only 6.6 per cent of the FTSE 100 and 4.9 per cent of FTSE 250 of executive directors are women. In October 2012, two female FTSE 100 chief executives resigned (Cynthia Carroll and Dame Majorie Scardino) and once their resignations come into effect, this will cut in half the number of women holding the top spot at a blue-chip company (Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco and Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts will be the only two FTSE 100 female chief executives standing).

And this is what we are acutely lacking – a focus on why women remain under-represented in senior management positions. Issues such as stereotypes, the cost of childcare, pay inequality are the really difficult issues that are lacking high profile supporters and that are infinitely more difficult to solve and commit to such short-term targets. Two reports released last month (see here and here) show that for all the talk of women on boards, and there has been plenty, there has been no change in the prospects of women running big businesses. And this points towards a real danger of the women on boards debate overshadowing the real issues.

ACCA’s own research shows that stereotypes still remain despite the unprecedented focus of female board appointments. For this reason the language of finance is seen to help break down some persistent stereotypes about women’s competence and emotional nature. Finance is also seen as the language of the board and for women with a finance background it gives them access to the conversations. Thus, the finance qualification is seen as a masculine qualification that combats some of the female stereotypes.

We need more research that helps us understand better what is hindering women in their careers and more importantly, what is helping them succeed. The women on boards agenda does very little on this front yet it is the only issue we should be looking at. Once we have more women leading our businesses, it would seem the rest would take care of itself, including the numbers of women at board level.

After all, our research shows that for every board member in the FTSE 100, there are 5,500 employees, demonstrating a real need for a more bottom-up approach.