The number of non-executive positions occupied by women at the top 150 FTSE companies exceeds those held by men © Fizkes/Dreamstime

Women account for the majority of non-executive director positions across the UK’s largest listed companies for the first time, according to a study by executive headhunter Spencer Stuart.

But the report also revealed that almost nine in 10 executive directors are male across the top 150 FTSE companies, highlighting that men still dominate management roles.

The 2021 UK Spencer Stuart Board Index reviews governance practice in the largest 150 companies in the FTSE rankings by market value at April 30 2021, excluding investment trusts.

The report showed that average non-executive “retainer” pay has risen from £58,600 to £70,782 since 2016, while the retainer for a part-time chair has jumped from £332,500 to £387,019 over the five-year period.

The study also highlighted that concerns about “overboarding” — where directors with many boards seats risk splitting their time too thinly — have grown during the pandemic “as boards met more frequently, often in crisis mode”.

Boards held 11.6 meetings on average in 2021, a 50 per cent increase on 2020, with almost two-thirds of non-executives sitting on between one and four additional listed company boards. More than one-third of chairs have at least one other chair position at a FTSE company beyond the top 150.

Improvements to gender diversity in the boardroom come after successful campaigning by government-backed groups such as the Hampton Alexander review, which set a target that at least one-third of board members should be female.

For the first time, the number of non-executive positions occupied by women — 442 — exceeded those held by men — 422 — according to Spencer Stuart.

But Spencer Stuart also found that men held all four senior board positions in 64 of the top 150 companies in its study. There are 12 female chief executives — an increase of 3 percentage points in the past 10 years — while the past year saw the number of female chairs rise from eight to 14.

Tessa Bamford, who leads Spencer Stuart’s board and chief executive practice, said that “progress is limited to non-executive directors — the number of female executives in the boardroom and on executive committees remains very low”. 

She added companies must continue to focus their efforts on developing the pipeline of female talent within the executive ranks and to have more women with management experience.

Shriti Vadera, chair of insurer Prudential, said that “diversity of thought and experience is paramount for the successful functioning of a board”. 

The report highlighted where progress had been made, she said, but also “where we need to go further and faster to achieve meaningful change”. 

Spencer Stuart said that first-time minority ethnic appointments had jumped 40 per cent in the past year, with candidates from black or Asian backgrounds making up one-quarter of all first-time directors.

A separate poll carried out by the executive search group found that greater ethnic diversity was the number one priority for UK boards.

However, the target set by the government-backed Parker Review — of at least one director from a minority ethnic background by 2021 — is on track to be missed.

The group found that 61 of FTSE 100 boards had reached this level as of April 30. While Bamford said that this had probably improved since then, to more than 70 companies, there was still work to be done.

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