Feminine touch

HOW CAN COMPANIES entice more women onto its boards, is it a talent pool or company issue, former PwC director and co-founder of consultancy White Water Strategies François Moscovici investigates

Recently Lord Davies published his first progress update since his February report on increasing women’s board participation. His recommendation is that at least 25% of the population of boards should be occupied by women in the FTSE350 companies, through encouragement, not compulsory quotas by 2015.

The starting point is that 12.5% (with the latest figures rising to about 14%) of all boards among the FTSE100 had women on them in 2010, with this figure falling slightly for the next 250 to about 7% of all boards. The recent update reflected a mix of action and foot dragging. Just a dozen companies have come forward with their plans so far. At White Water we interviewed a number of chief executives and can confirm they still remain unclear on the objectives, although most are willing, and believe it is the lack of a decent talent pool that is proving to be the biggest hurdle. Could women accountants provide the solution? After all accountants are natural candidates for audit committees.

There are several reasons why women accountants haven’t yet swelled the ranks of audit committees and other board directors.

The average board size for the FTSE100 was 10.8 in 2010; the number is smaller for the next 250 companies. This means that a target of 25% will free up just two potential spaces for women: one executive (CEO or FD) and one non-executive – typically on a committee such as audit. This still equates to less than one opening per year per company. Change will therefore be slow unless companies are systematic in introducing more women on to their short lists

Women represent only 5% of chief executives and 5% of FDs in the FTSE100 in 2010. Although they start from parity, as over 50% of recruited graduates are women, the proportion of women to progress through each step up the career ladder halves to about 5-10%. Large accounting firms in this respect mirror their clients: 49% of graduates are female, but firms have been stuck below 15% of equity partners, although congratulations should be given to both E&Y and PwC for recent progress.

However, there is still a huge waste of talent with only 1% of women as managing partners in accountancy firms. Boards like to choose from a pool of senior people and there are not enough women around to choose from.


Our research and client interviews show even successful women tend not to put themselves forward. What is needed is a mix of confidence and attitude to risk to move up the corporate structure but, women will only apply for a job if they are 100% confident about their competence, while most men are happy to learn on the job.

Only 1% of board appointments are advertised. Boards count on the personal network of their members as well as head hunters to identify suitable candidates. Again, our research shows many women consider networking as ‘not working’ and tend to focus their energies on delivering in their formal role. Furthermore, many networking opportunities take place outside normal working hours, when many women have already started their second shift at home.

There are many other reasons for the lack of female progress onto boards, ranging from unconscious bias to narrowness of the acceptable professional background of board candidates. What we see as key, is the lack of executive opportunities for women in corporate life. There is a short term fix (better recruitment practice, systematic inclusion of women on short lists, etc.); but the long term solution is to manage the executive pipeline. There is no fundamental reason there should not be 30-50% of boards populated by female FDs. The old chestnut of the maternity argument no longer holds as 44% of current women senior executives are childless. In reality companies need to become more woman friendly and women need to help themselves.


Related reading