East Anglia: Grant Thornton survey reveals slow progress on boardroom equality

THE number of women holding senior management positions in private businesses across the eastern region is among the lowest in the UK, according to research by accountants and business advisers Grant Thornton.

Findings from the firm’s new International Business Report show that just 18% of boardroom positions in the east are occupied by women, compared with a UK national average of 23%.

The eastern region fares only slightly better than the South West, West and Wales which has the lowest number of female senior managers at 16%, followed by the Midlands at 17%. The North, North East and North West boasts the highest number of women holding top jobs at 26%, while London and the South has 25%.

Although the UK average across all senior management positions has risen by 2.1% compared with 2009’s figures, the survey shows it is still proving difficult for women to rise to the very top in private business with only 3% of companies being led by a female chief executive, against a European average of 10%.

Alison Seekings, a partner at Grant Thornton East Anglia, said: “Although the number of women in the UK’s private company boardrooms has increased marginally, the progress is too slow. Private businesses are generally doing better than listed companies on boardroom diversity, but it is worrying to see how few women are coming through to the top level of organisations. Private companies make up the backbone of UK plc and it is a poor reflection on the whole economy that the improvement on this issue is so minimal.

“A diverse boardroom, which reflects the customer base it serves, leads to better decision-making and a sustained business performance. UK companies are losing out by not developing the potential of the entire work force and we risk falling behind other economies if radical change is not taken to address this issue.”

The UK ranks 5th of the 13 European Union countries surveyed on its number of female boardroom executives, edging ahead of Spain and Italy at 22% and France at 21%. However, the UK still lags behind Poland, which at 31% has the highest number of women senior managers seen in the EU, and Sweden and Greece at 30%.

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The UK also trails behind some of the emerging economies such as China and Brazil, where women occupy 31% and 29% of board seats respectively.

Alison Seekings added: “It is crucial that companies look seriously at how they create an environment to realise the full potential of women. Lack of suitable or affordable child care options is a major challenge and it is notable that Sweden has significant support in this area.”

However, she said that imposed quotas, such as the European Commission’s proposal to require the boards of all publicly listed companies to be at least 40% female, needed to be “considered with care”.

“Instead initiatives such as mentoring schemes, which showcase ‘real women’ senior leaders as opposed to perpetuating the ‘superwoman’ myth, would be helpful,” she added.

“It is also important for investors to question businesses on how they are going to ensure they have talent pipelines that will generate a diverse leadership for the future.”