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Top UK firms pay "lip service" to women, many keep them off boards: inquiry

[LONDON] Nearly two-thirds of Britain's 350 biggest listed companies have failed to reach a target of having 25 per cent of female board members, and four-fifths have two or fewer women on their boards, an inquiry into gender diversity said on Wednesday.

Top jobs remain dominated by men, with nearly three-quarters of companies in the FTSE 100, the biggest firms listed on the London Stock Exchange, and 90 percent of the next-biggest FTSE 250 companies, having no female executive directors, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission said.

"The good work of a forward-thinking minority masks that many top businesses are still only paying lip service to improving the representation of women on boards," said the head of the commission, Laura Carstensen.

Official figures published last year showed that firms in the FTSE 100 had reached their target, set in 2011, of 25 per cent female board members and that there were more women on FTSE 350 boards than ever before, with representation of women more than doubling since 2011.

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But the inquiry found that less than half of the 350 biggest companies actually increased the proportion of women in their boardrooms, while 46 per cent either kept the same proportion of women board members or reduced it.

Almost one-third of companies used outdated "old boy" networks to identify new candidates for their boards and did not advertise the posts in any other way, limiting opportunities for women to apply, it added.


"Unfortunately the recruitment practices of too many businesses still remain trapped in permafrost and that's holding back women and ultimately the companies themselves," Ms Carstensen said. "The recruitment process to the boards of Britain's top companies remains shadowy and opaque and is acting as a barrier to unleashing female talent."

Just 2 per cent of firms advertised non-executive positions on their websites, in newspapers or on social media, and the majority did nothing to encourage applications from women for senior or board positions, the inquiry said.

Another obstacle to increasing opportunities for women was job descriptions which used terms like having the right "chemistry" or "fit" as opposed to specifying skills and experience, it said.

The commission said company boards should be made accountable for improving diversity at executive and board levels and called for the recruitment process to be improved, among other recommendations.

In October a government report called on FTSE 350 firms to reach a target of 33 per cent of women on their boards by 2020.

The Fawcett Society, a campaign group promoting women's rights in the workplace, said companies should be obliged to follow the commission's recommendations.

"In our view the time-limited use of quotas needs to be part of the solution," the Fawcett Society's chief executive, Sam Smethers, said in a statement. "It's time to speed up the pace of change. The voluntary approach just isn't going to work for many of these companies."