Representation of women on private sector boards: research findings

Part of a broader programme of work being undertaken to improve gender equality and diversity.

Barriers to Improving Gender Balance and Broader Diversity of Boards

15. The literature suggests the main barriers to improving gender balance and broader diversity of private sector boards can be categorised as:

  • Individual characteristics including different aspirations about board membership and a lack of relevant skills and experience. However, there is mixed evidence in relation to this - and many researchers criticise this perspective as it places the emphasis on women rather than on changing the broader organisational and cultural issues that influence women's decisions.
  • Interpersonal characteristics including more limited social networks and board culture being unable to accommodate diversity - making it difficult for women and other underrepresented groups to integrate.
  • Appointment and recruitment processes with, for example, a lack of diversity on nomination committees, unclear selection criteria, unconscious bias and the language and framing of directorships all acting as barriers to women and other underrepresented groups gaining board positions.

16. However, the findings of the e-survey show quite a different picture:

  • The most common barrier to achieving gender balance on their board highlighted was the low turnover of board membership - reflecting the fact that most companies completing the survey were small and medium-sized enterprises ( SMEs) and many were family-owned companies (whereas most earlier research has focused on larger, listed companies).
  • Just under a third of companies felt that there were no barriers to improving the gender balance of their boards. Boards that were more equal were more likely to think this was the case.
  • Where companies did identify a barrier that specifically related to gender, the most commonly mentioned were a lack of female candidates coming forward for board positions and that female candidates lack the industry-specific skills and experience required.

17. The case studies and stakeholder interviews provide further insights into these barriers.

  • The lack of female candidates is thought to reflect differences in aspirations across genders (with many of the 'potential board members' interviewed for this research feeling that board positions were not for them), perceptions that boards are a 'male-dominated culture' where they may not fit in and more limited social networks amongst women.
  • The major factors underpinning the lack of skills and experience amongst female candidates are the lack of women in senior management roles and time out of the labour market due to caring responsibilities which limits the volume of experience women have accrued compared to men. A further consideration is the type of skills and experience companies are looking for - with some consultees raising concerns that these are too narrow. The concern here is that there is unconscious bias amongst the often cited focus on getting 'the right person for the job'.

18. One of the most notable findings is that many of the companies that participated in the research felt that there were no barriers to improving the gender balance of their board - but the low proportion of boards with gender parity and the evidence from other literature suggest that at a broader societal level there are barriers. In addition, many of barriers that were identified related to the choices women make in the labour market (for example, around career choice, whether to remain in work after having children, etc.). It is important to recognise that these are influenced by wider organisational, structural and cultural barriers and unless there is wider recognition of these (and action to address them) it will be difficult to make sustainable inroads into tackling this issue.


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