Women should be appointed to the boards of banks bailed out by the government, according to a bellwether report on women in the boardroom that shows the rise of female executives is continuing at a glacial pace.

Women are ambitious to join corporate boards, with four out of five female executives in FTSE 350 companies wanting to find non-executive director roles, the survey found. But most women said they were rarely approached by executive search consultants about potential appointments.

Only 16 of the 149 appointments to boards in the past 12 months have been women, in spite of what the survey describes as a growing talent pool of more than 1,800 senior female directors and managers in smaller listed companies.

One senior woman interviewed in the survey said it was difficult to land the first appointment. “Many non-executive directors have multiple appointments and this seems to be preferred to those with no track record.”

Female FTSE 100
19992008
Female held directorships79
6.9%
131
11.7%
Female executive directorships13
2.0%
17
4.8%
Women NEDs*66
10.8%
114
14.9%
Companies with women executive directors1216
Companies with at least one female director6478
Companies with multiple female directors1339
Companies with no female directors3622
*Non-executive directors

The report, published by Cranfield University School of Management, calls on companies to do more to improve the gender diversity on corporate boards, including advertising all directorships and aiming to have females representing 30 per cent of candidates on long lists for appointments.

Female candidates should also be considered when the government is nominating executives for board positions in Britain’s recapitalised banks, the report adds.

Ruth Sealy, one of the authors, said: “We might not be in quite such a dire situation if there had been more females on the boards of banks. The evidence is that women are not more risk-averse, but they are more risk-aware.”

More diverse boards were “less likely to fall into group-think or to accept the status quo,” she said. “Decisions can take longer to reach, but they will be better.” Iceland has appointed two women executives to lead the rescue of its financial institutions.

The survey found women were continuing to break through the glass ceiling, with five female chief executives in the FTSE 100 and two female chairmen. One in eight directors of the largest listed companies is a woman, and 39 companies have two or more women on their boards – three times the number 10 years ago.

Top of the Cranfield league table this year is Alliance Trust, which has entered the FTSE 100 since last year and has three women board members out of seven – including a female chairman and a female chief executive.

Amec, the engineering and project management consultancy, and retailer Marks and Spencer were joint second, with women making up a third of their boards

New appointments to FTSE 100 boards, 2008
New appointmentsMale
133
Female
16
Female percentage of new appointments11
Source: Cranfield

But 10 years after the survey began, the pace of change remains incremental with the proportion of female directors in the FTSE 100 just 5 percentage points higher than in 1999.

Some said they had been discouraged by the experience of applying for non-executive board roles. “On one occasion I was interviewed,” said one senior executive. “I was asked why I was interested in such a position given that I had two children at home and should be spending more time with them.”

Most female executives were gloomy about the prospects for an acceleration in the pace of change.

When asked what they thought the percentage of female FTSE 100 directors would be in the future, the answer averaged less than
14 per cent in five years
and 18.5 per cent in 10 years. The current level is 11.7 per cent.

Pessimists thought boards and head-hunters were fixed on “older white men”, while some blamed women for not pushing themselves forward. Others said some top appointments had been “token women” who had struggled in the role.

But some thought companies were more aware of the need for greater board diversity, and pointed to the growing talent pool. The majority of women executives were against positive discrimination, but saw a need for new measures such as targets.

“Emotionally I think it should be non-interventionist,” said one female director. “But I know from the work I’ve done that unless you have targets/quotas, it doesn’t change.”

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