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UK slips down European women on boards rankings

27 Apr 2016

Pall Mall and Waterloo Place road signs on the side of a buildingMajor new research into female representation on the boards of Europe’s largest companies shows that the UK has fallen from sixth to eighth place among 12 leading economies since 2011. Britain has a below-average proportion of women compared to the other European countries in the study, at 23% of board positions. Norway leads the table on 39%, while Switzerland brings up the rear, with women making up 16% of directors.

The research was conducted by European Women on Boards (EWoB), a network comprised of the Institute of Directors in the UK and similar associations in eight other European countries. The report, which examined the boards of 600 large European companies between 2011 and 2015*, found that the percentage of women almost doubled in this period, from 14 to 25%.

The improvement across Europe makes the UK’s relative position look worse, despite significant improvement since the Coalition Government adopted a 25% target for women on boards in 2011. Only Belgium and Italy have increased the proportion of female directors more than the UK in this time.

The UK’s performance in some areas was stronger, with female directors in the UK more likely than the European average to serve on the important nomination, remuneration and audit committees. The research also commends UK firms for the quality of their reporting on board appointments.

Lady Barbara Judge, Chairman of the Institute of Directors, and member of the EWoB Advisory Board, said:

“This research is an important reminder that, despite clear improvements in the last few years, there is still much more to be done to achieve a better gender balance on the boards of our large companies. British firms will have to reach the Government’s ambition for a third of board posts to be held by women by 2020 if we are to have a chance of climbing toward the top of the European table.   

“A particular cause for concern is the slow progress being made in appointing more women to executive positions. Only around 3% of the Chief Executives of Europe’s 600 largest companies are women, and figure that has barely moved since 2011.

“Boards need to look at how they can get more women into the key decision-making roles. They should consider changing their appointment procedures, for example by making sure a woman is on the interview panel, improving mentoring, and demanding more of headhunters.”

Out of the 12 largest European markets, five now have mandatory quotas on female board membership (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Norway). Quotas have led to quick boosts in numbers in countries like Italy, which had the lowest proportion of women on boards in 2011, but the report argues legislation has not been the only factor in driving increased female appointments. Norway has a board gender quota in place, but Sweden and Finland, which both have more than 30% of director roles held by women, do not.

Download the full report here

On 17 June, the IoD will be holding its ninth annual Women as Leaders conference, with speakers including Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, Edwina Dunn, co-founder of Dunnhumby, and Sacha Romanovitch, CEO of Grant Thornton. More information here.  

*The data was compiled from the STOXX 600 index, and restricted to the 12 largest European markets. 187 of the companies in the 2015 study were from the UK. A full list of the companies can be found from p.80 of the report.


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