Britain’s biggest private businesses will be expected to match listed companies on gender parity, as ministers launch a fresh push for more women to be appointed to senior leadership positions.
The FTSE Women Leaders Review, a business-led body backed by the government, has published voluntary recommendations that set a target for FTSE 350 companies to increase women’s representation to at least 40 per cent of both boards and leadership teams by the end of 2025.
The review also set a voluntary goal for companies to have a woman in at least one of four key positions: board chair, senior independent director, chief executive and or finance director.
For the first time, these targets will apply to the largest 50 private companies in the UK by sales, a group likely to include some big law and consultancy groups, as well as the employee-owned John Lewis partnership, family businesses such as JCB and Dyson, and private equity-owned companies.
The review is a successor to the five-year Hampton Alexander equality review, which ended a year ago and concluded its target for women to fill a third of board positions had been achieved on average across the FTSE 350.
The latest data — published in a report by the FTSE Women Leaders Review on Tuesday — showed that most big listed UK companies are already close to achieving the new 40 per cent target for female representation on boards.
Currently, female representation on boards stands at an average of 39.1 per cent across the FTSE 100, 36.8 per cent across the FTSE 250 and 37.6 per cent for the FTSE350.
Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, said this showed the success of the UK’s voluntary approach — which contrasts with the mandatory quotas set by legislation in many European countries — with the UK’s gender balance on boards now second only to France in a ranking of 11 similar countries.
Denise Wilson, chief executive of the review team, said UK boardrooms had undergone a “revolutionary change” in the 10 years since the start of the process, and that the latest recommendations were a final push to “make sure we achieve gender balance”.
However, companies are some way from achieving balance at the very top. The review found women filled 31.5 per cent of FTSE 350 leadership roles in 2021, up 2 percentage points from 2020 but held only a quarter of positions on executive committees — with just 18 female chief executives and 49 female finance directors across the FTSE 350.
Wilson said achieving gender balance in these key roles would be “the last and final hill to climb”. She added that slower progress was to be expected, given the long tenure of many chief executives and the pay and power attached to those roles.
There remains a significant, if dwindling, a number of laggards, with 72 FTSE 350 companies still falling short of the existing target for women to fill 33 per cent of board positions. The review has made a new recommendation for investors and other stakeholders to put pressure on these laggards.
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The government is expected to announce new chairs for the review’s own management team in the coming weeks or months, a spokesperson said. The posts fell vacant after Dame Helen Alexander died in 2017 and Sir Philip Hampton stood down last February.