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What Does the UK's 'March of the Women' Say for Boardroom Equality?

15/08/2014 15:47 BST | Updated 14/10/2014 10:12 BST

In a bid to replicate the attempted gender rebalancing of July's cabinet reshuffle, David Cameron has catapulted a host of successful businesswomen into the House of Lords.

With the UK general election just around the corner, you'd be excused for asking why the Prime Minister is opting for high-powered, self-made women over the more familiar ageing male archetype. Is this just a case of political pageantry or could it be a sign of real reform?

There is no question that the roll call of new female entrants to the Lords - including former Google and Facebook executive Joanna Shields and chair of CBI Scotland Nosheena Mobarik - is impressive. Mr Cameron has also granted a peerage to The Apprentice star Karren Brady, who, as vice-chairman of West Ham and previous managing director of Birmingham City, is famously hailed as "the first lady of football".

These appointments have been widely branded "the march of the women"; however with membership of the House of Lords now totalling 796, of which just 193 are women, this is less of a march and more of a trickle. And I am not sure how elevating yet more unelected members to the House of Lords advances the cause of either parliamentary democracy or gender diversity in the "mother of parliaments".

I can't help but see a correlation between Tory trumpeting about more women in Parliament and similar backslapping over progress towards gender equality in the boardroom. One initiative David Cameron does deserve credit for is instituting the high profile review led by Lord Davies into the lack of women on boards of FTSE companies. In March, the 2014 Davies Annual Report announced the FTSE 100 were indeed on track to reach Lord Davies' target of 25% female representation on boards by 2015, though not without "redoubling efforts". Then in June, the last remaining FTSE 100 company without a female board member, Glencore, succumbed to political, media and shareholder pressure and appointed Patrice Merrin to its board.

While the movement of women marching into top positions in politics and business seems inexorable, Lord Davies' annual update also revealed there are 291 executive directorships (key decision-makers) across the FTSE 100 but only 6.9% of these positions are held by women. This means the vast majority of the much celebrated female board members fulfil only non-executive, advisory roles.

There may have been a simultaneous surge of new female peers but women still make up just 24% of the total number of peers. Likewise, there are currently only five female cabinet ministers among 17 men. Apparently this means David Cameron has almost delivered on a pledge that one in three members of his cabinet would be women. Almost? One in three? Last time I checked, women accounted for just over half the UK adult population.

The cultural, commercial, political (with a small p) and media momentum is with the advancement of women in all areas of life but specifically gender diversity in the boardroom. One of the most heart-warming aspects of Glencore's story is that shareholder Aviva Investors declined to approve Glencore's reports or accounts at its AGM in May because there were no women on its board.

The challenge for those of us with a genuine stake in this issue is not to be palmed off too easily with political rhetoric and small wins. We must continue to campaign for great women, of which there are many, to be appointed to real positions of power in business and politics (and by that I mean significant, executive roles) because of their own merit.

In politics, that means cabinet and front bench representation alongside a manifesto pledge to advance the cause of women in business into the next Parliament. In business, it means a commitment to recognising the capabilities of women and clearing their route to top jobs. Some progress has been made, but it's a long road ahead.