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Why do men still dominate the boardroom?

Published: Tuesday 19th February 2019


A study by the global search company, Egon Zehnder has found that three-quarters of all boardroom jobs are still going to male candidates. The survey looked at 1,610 public companies in 44 countries and found that the number of women recruited at board level had only increased by 2% since 2016. Jill Ader, chair at Egon Zehnders, commented that diversity wasn’t progressing quickly enough and that companies should be aiming to have at least three women at boardroom level.

Male dominated boardroom

The right ‘man’ for the job?

Historically, boardrooms have always been male-dominated but given so much media in recent years focussing on gender equality and the pay gap, as well as action taken at a government level, it was thought that perhaps some progress had been made. According to this latest survey, the culture of men in the boardroom clearly isn’t changing fast enough. Most senior staff members are male and most men are still being paid a higher wage than their female counterparts.

Mix of male and female in boardroom

In the UK, targets have been set for FTSE 100 firms to have 33% female representation at boardroom level by 2020, after a government-backed report from Lord Mervyn Davies. The UK currently ranks sixth in Europe, behind Norway, Sweden, France, Finland, and Belgium, where there are set formal quotas for female representation. And some companies are taking action. Unilever has doubled the number of women on its board to 50% since 2011 – the only company to achieve gender parity, and at Marks & Spencer, female boardroom representation has almost doubled to 41.7% in just four years ago. Drinks firm, Diageo, has gone to 40% from 36.4%, while pharma company, AstraZeneca, along with Sainsbury’s, British American Tobacco and Standard Life have same some progression too.

Boys in a boardroom

The private sector needs to catch up

But the private sector is still lagging behind, prompting Davies to suggest that customers and employees should act against employers who do not ‘get’ diversity, by shunning their goods, and not working for them.

The issue in the private sector may stem from the tradition of the ‘old boys network’. It’s thought that many boardroom positions aren’t advertised properly, but are discussed and recruited through personal networking, typically where men at boardroom level go socialising. Indeed, the Equality and Humans Right Commission (EHRC) said that those posts that were advertised were too vague in their descriptions, using terms such as ‘fit’ and ‘chemistry’, and that the recruitment process for senior staff members on the boards of Britain’s top companies remained ‘shadowy and opaque’ and acted as a barrier to female talent.

Male and female both pushing gender symbols

Putting women first

But are boardroom quotas the answer? Some feel that can lead to ‘tokenism’. But simply getting more women in the boardroom to start with, could, in turn, lead to the turnaround what’s needed. After all, perhaps what’s needed most is a change in thinking at boardroom level.

Women’s advocates have been fighting for gender diversity on boards for decades and progress has been made, but there is some way to go yet. For real change, boards need to look beyond inclusion and influencing that change themselves by hiring fairly and meritocratically.

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