Smaller LSE firms lag far behind large companies on female directors, study shows

Study finds ‘permafrost’ of small firms that have not met Hampton-Alexander review’s target of women in one-third of roles

Less than half of the 260 smaller companies listed on the London Stock Exchange’s main index have met the target of having a third of their board roles occupied by women, and more than half still have all-male executive leadership teams.

The campaign group Women on Boards UK has analysed all firms below the FTSE 350 All-Share index, and identified what it calls a “permafrost” of smaller businesses below the top layer that have been slow in taking steps to diversify.

Only 48% have met the government-backed Hampton-Alexander review’s target for having women in 33% of boardroom roles, the study found, compared with nearly two-thirds of FTSE 350 businesses.

Fiona Hathorn, chief executive of Women on Boards, said: “The job is far from done. While progress has been made over the past several years, much of this has been driven by the largest companies. There are many smaller listed companies which, with a collective market capitalisation value of £63bn, have a significant impact on the UK economy.

“Leaders have to believe that diverse companies perform better. It’s possible that the C-suite [of top executives] believe it, but does the permafrost below believe it?”

Fifty-four percent of the smaller 261 businesses did not have a single woman on their executive teams – compared with 8% of FTSE 350 firms.

Smaller firms with all-male executive teams include the sub-prime lender Amigo, which faces potential collapse after a high court decision that blocked a scheme to cap customer compensation over mis-sold loans; the property developers Helical and the U and I Group, and Norcros, which sells bathroom and kitchen equipment.

Helical pointed out that it has two female property executives just below its four-member senior executive team.

Companies with all-male boards include the loss-making IP commercialisation firm Allied Minds, which had been backed by the now disgraced fund manager Neil Woodford, the motor finance firm S & U, and the investment fund Gabelli Value Plus Trust. Allied Minds said it is aware of the lack of gender diversity, but noted that its board is only three strong.

The Gabelli fund said it had a female board member until last July. The fund may be liquidated soon; if it isn’t, it will seek to appoint a director and “due consideration would be given to gender and ethnic diversity as part of the recruitment process”.

Thirty-seven percent of the smaller companies had only one or no female director. Only 3% of board members were “directors of colour” (male or female) and they were distributed across just 16% of companies.

Those with a female leader include the fashion retailer Ted Baker, which promoted Rachel Osborne to chief executive from chief financial officer, after she discovered a major accounting error. Her promotion also came after the “forced hugs” scandal involving its founder Ray Kelvin, who resigned as chief executive and a director in 2019.

The property regeneration firm Harworth Group is run by chief executive Lynda Shillaw and the finance chief, Kitty Patmore, and also has three female non-executive board members, which means women make up half the company’s board.

Female chairs include Penny Hughes at The Gym Group, and Clare Hollingsworth at the bus and rail operator Go-Ahead, which also has a female finance chief, Elodie Brian.

Very few women are reaching the most senior roles, as only 7% of the companies below the FTSE 350 – 17 firms – had a female chief executive or lead fund manager, while 16% – 41 firms – had a female chair.

Among them is the former FA director Dame Heather Rabbatts, a solicitor who sits on the board of the construction contractor Kier Group and also chairs Soho Theatre Company.

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The average gender pay gap across all staff is 20% for those FTSE 350 companies required to report, and 17% for the remainder of the FTSE All-Share index, compared with a national average of 13.7%. The bonus gap is even wider at 44.6% for the FTSE 350 and nearly 36% for the rest of the FTSE All-Share, compared with a national average of 20%.

Hathorn said that improvement would depend on bringing forward the next generation of leaders, but that management training budgets tend to be small and usually only cover the top few executives in a company. Middle managers also need training, she argued, for example in how to be consciously inclusive when holding meetings.

However, there are signs of change. Some of the FTSE’s smallest companies are firmly female led, meaning that among the 261 smallest companies, women held 31% of boardroom roles overall between January and February when the data was collected. This compares with 34% at Britain’s top 350 firms, according to the final report of the Hampton-Alexander review published in February. The target of 33% of board positions at FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 firms being held by women was reached by the end of 2020, although the review found that men still dominate the top ranks of business.


Julia Kollewe

The GuardianTramp

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