When it comes to getting women into the boardroom, the UK is losing ground, says our new report on corporate board structure and behaviour, entitled Towards Dynamic Governance.
It's a fact that across most of Europe the number of women joining corporate boards has not risen appreciably in recent years.
Despite plenty of good intentions and copious media attention on the topic, the proportion of female directors of top UK companies is a lacklustre 18%, just 1% above the European average.
So where are all the women?
Not in the CEO suite
To start, women appear not to be in the role from which a majority of board directors are drawn. While most boards do acknowledge the benefits of greater diversity around the table, 42% of members in the UK come from just one place – the CEO suite.
A majority are aged 61 or over.
Director turnover is very low except in instances of mergers, acquisitions or bankruptcies. We know that the average number of directors at UK companies is 12.4 and that directors' average term length is 5.5 years. In fact, across Europe term lengths are rising.
Unfortunately, board seats don't often open up. And, when they do, there aren't enough women CEOs to fill them.
Not in the Networks
Search committees often prefer 'warm' referrals, meaning somebody can vouch for a person from their own experience and network. Networking is such an important, but often ignored, way for women to connect to the right people and receive sponsorship within an organisation.
We often hear that women are not as good at networking as their male counterparts – or at least are not in the right places at the right time!
One good place to start is by networking among existing directors of boards at conferences and events.
Above all, companies want to add sound business judgment to their boards. They seek seasoned executives who know how to home in on problems, risks and opportunities and to ask probing questions.
Significant not-for-profit or advisory board experience is a good proxy for a public board. Participation in one these boards is not just a good thing to do, it can provide a strong foundation, supports outstanding boards skills and experience and puts expertise in front of people who can help. It's crucial though to choose a board according to personal passions and to have an affinity with the products and services of that organisation; to come at a role from an authentic place.
Another good route to the boardroom for those without a CEO background is via work on a special committee such as audit or remuneration, where financial or HR experience is highly valued.
Not Out of Your Hands
Over the years of advising companies and identifying new board members, we've also observed that the most successful appointments come about when candidates are rigorous in their assessment of personal fit and chemistry with the other members of the board. We encourage candidates for board positions to ask themselves:
1. What do I think of the CEO? Do we share similar values? Are we culturally aligned?
2. Are the board members people I will be proud to work with and learn from?
3. Is it clear what I can bring to this board in terms of professional expertise?
4. How will I benefit professionally and personally from this experience?
5. Am I truly passionate about this role and the DNA of the organisation?
Not without support
While UK plans to implement gender diversity targets were scrapped last year, the European Union (EU) continues to press for requirements spearheaded by Commissioner Viviane Reading.
EU lawmakers have outlined plans for Europe-wide targets to increase the number of women company directors.
If the directive, currently in draft form, is approved, it will mean Stock Market-listed companies with 250 staff or more will have to have 40 per cent women board members by 2020, or face fines. We have also seen this come into practice in the Nordics, Spain and France.
UK companies continue to demonstrate their commitment to gender diversity: The Cooperative Group just two weeks ago announced its plans to make sure that 40 per cent of its board members are women by 2018.
There are now just two remaining FTSE 100 organisations without any women board directors after the London Stock Exchange appointed Sherry Coutu and Joanna Shields to their board at the start of the year.
Jenni Hibbert is a partner at headhunting firm Heidrick & Struggles