Recent developments on both sides of 'the pond' have marked progress for women looking to break through the proverbial glass ceiling. But what more can be done?

In the news

This month has seen American politics take a progressive step, with the confirmation that Hilary Clinton is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for the President of the United States 2016 election. She is the first female candidate to gain such status for a major American political party.

Whilst this is a significant achievement, it is noteworthy that it has taken until 2016 for a woman to reach this level. Indeed, despite over 40 years of discrimination legislation protecting the rights of women in the workplace in the UK, disparities are still being seen.

Women on boards

The poor representation of women on company boards, relative to their male counterparts, has been a hot topic for the UK government in recent years. In 2009 only 12.2% of directors of FTSE 100 companies were women, and on the boards of FTSE 250 companies the proportion was just 7.3%. By 2010 these figures had moved to 12.5% for FTSE 100 and 7.8% of FTSE 250.

This rate of increase was considered too slow. A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2008) suggested that at that rate of change it would take more than 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK's largest 100 companies.

In 2010, with the threat of EU gender boardroom quotas looming, the previous UK government commissioned a review into women on boards. The committee took a business-led, voluntary approach to change and set a stretch target of 25 per cent of female directors across FTSE 100 companies. Five years on, that quota has been hit. However, not one FTSE 100 company can boast total gender parity in the boardroom. Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders has also estimated that women's representation on FTSE 100 boards is likely to stagnate when it hits 28%.

Progress has been slower among the smaller listed companies that make up the FTSE 250 index, with women making up just 18% of boards. Across the whole spectrum of UK companies, the number is increasing, but we're still only at 14%. Fifteen - just 4.2% of - FTSE 350 companies have a woman chief executive, which shows that the top seat at the executive table remains particularly elusive. Such statistics suggest there is still a lot of work to do.

European countries with quota regimes are likely to meet their target figures in the next few years and the UK will fall behind, both in Europe and internationally, if it does not progress beyond 26% female representation. For this reason, the committee which set the original 25% target, having reviewed progress over the last 5 years, has now set new targets for female board representation in the FTSE 350 of 33% by 2020, increasing the progression of women to the roles of chair, senior independent director and executive director, and asking all FTSE listed companies to address gender imbalance on their boards.

Gender pay gap reporting

The Office of National Statistics has the current overall gender pay gap in the UK at 19.1%, which again supports the argument that more can be done. Gender pay gap figures are not a reflection of whether men and women are paid the same for doing the same roles (that is, equal pay). Rather they reflect whether the majority of the high paid, senior positions within an organisation are filled by men and the lower paid, part-time roles by women. Organisations structured in that way will have a large gender pay gap.

The reasons for the gender pay gap are complicated but, the task of looking after dependent family members is largely borne by women. Women therefore have greater recourse to part-time work in order to combine work and family responsibilities. Consequently, women work shorter hours than men and are likely to have more career interruptions. This has a negative impact on their career development and promotion prospects. It also means less financially rewarding careers.

The government has confirmed its intention to introduce compulsory gender pay gap reporting for private and voluntary sector organisations with at least 250 relevant employees, and relevant Regulations are expected to come into force on 1 October 2016 with the first such reports due to be published before 30 April 2018. It will be interesting to see how businesses respond to these new reporting obligations and what steps they take to reduce their gender pay gaps in the future.