Gender balance on company boards is improving, according to the latest Hampton-Alexander review. But as the FTSE 350 inches closer to its target of 33% women leaders by 2020, are we really witnessing a culture change?

An annual review of women leadership statistics

Published each year in mid-November, the Hampton-Alexander review reports on the percentage of women in leadership roles across the FTSE 350. Statistics are provided on a voluntary basis, with a view to achieving business-led change.

Progress has been made since last year

The 2019 statistics show a positive trend. Women now make up 32.4% of directors on FTSE 100 boards and 29.6% of directors on FTSE 250 boards. Although the FTSE 250’s performance is notably worse, there has been a significant improvement since last year with the number of women leaders up by almost 5%. Overall, this translates to 30.6% of women on boards.

The review identifies some stand-out performers, particularly in the retail and media & entertainment sectors. Some of these companies have achieved 50% gender balance on their boards already, while fourteen companies have five or more women board members.

FTSE 350 is on track to meet the target of 33% by 2020

Hampton-Alexander describes the data as representing a “good year” in “overall terms”. But to reach the target, a step change is required: 50% of appointments over the next 12 months need to go to women.

33% is not equality

But why aren’t we seeing an equal rate of appointments already? The need to correct the historic imbalance means that 50% might be unrealistic as an overall target, but for new appointments, parity should be achievable. Instead, the appointment rate for executive committee leadership positions is substantially higher for men than women: men account for 68% of leadership appointments in the FTSE 100 and 73% in the FTSE 250.

Tokenism and non-engagement

The phenomena of “one and done” was identified as a real problem last year, with 74 boards having only one female director. This year the problem is less severe, but it still persists: 39 boards have only one female member, indicating a lack of engagement from some quarters. Worse still, there are two companies with male only boards and a further 42 with all-male executive committees.

The statistics show that the top spots rarely go to women. Throughout the FTSE 350, there are only 25 female board chairs and 13 female CEOs.

A long way from resolution

It’s tempting to suggest that these companies are outliers but, in fact, Hampton-Alexander identifies 174 (of the 350 companies) as having “some way to go” to achieve its target.

The reality is that the progress being reported is not universal. Those companies with stellar performance who’ve moved beyond the 33% target are giving a free-ride to the slow coaches who have yet to positively engage. The average figure of 30.6% isn’t representative of the true picture.

Where to next?

Next year will be the last Hampton-Alexander review. At the current rate of progress, the target may well be met. But, for aspiring women leaders, the outlook remains uncertain. The figures show that culture change is patchy rather than universal and more effort is needed. So let’s hope that the last review will not also be the last word for women on boards.