Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

January 28, 2013 | comments

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

As we approach two years since the publication of the Lord Davies report, it’s perhaps a good time to reflect on what progress has been made. Assessing progress can, of course, take several forms but I‘m first of all going to try and stick to a numbers game and see what kind of picture that creates for the representation of women on UK Boards.


If we go back to when the report was published in February 2011, with data from 2010, at that time women held 12.5% of all directorships in the FTSE 100 and the latest figures show that number has grown to 17.3% (Boardex November 2012). Given that in the years prior to Lord Davies progress had effectively plateaued, with less than one percent year on year rise, then it’s clear that post the report there has been a significant shift in the approach companies are taking to their Board positions. Indeed in the first 12 months since the report, Lord Davies was able to confirm in his update that we had seen the biggest ever reported increase in the percentage of women on boards.


Fantastic. So far so good. So the sea change has taken place, the challenge has been overcome? Well obviously it’s not quite that simple and when you lift the covers on those statistics there is a starker trend which is not necessarily a good news story. Indeed I would argue that some of the updates from Lord Davies and others do not accurately reflect a true assessment of the progress that is being made but rather over-inflate the importance of a single number as a barometer of success.


The main challenge I have in only highlighting the total number of Board positions held is that you really need to see the breakdown of executive and non-executive positions to understand the full picture. The reality is that the vast majority of the improvement has come from non-executive representation which sees women now holding 21.6% of all non-exec positions ( up from 15.6%). For the executive positions the update is less inspiring with 6.7% of women holding such roles - an increase of just 1.2%. For FTSE 250 organisations the number of women holding executive positions is lower still at 5.2%, not surprising when over 30% of boards in the FTSE 250 are all-male.


To be clear I’m not wishing to underplay some of the great work that has been done, it’s great to see organisations responding to the challenge and appointing more women to their board, such an increase in non-exec representation can only be good. But what does it mean in terms of organisations truly developing their women and building a pipeline for the future? Well in truth I’m not sure we can tell too much simply from these statistics. Of course you have to find some kind of measurement, and board positions and the number of all male boards (8 in the FTSE 100 in case you were wondering) is as good as any. However a truer measure may well be to look at the representation at the 2-3 levels below Board and see how the gender mix is progressing there. Less uniform as a measurement perhaps but it might allow us to better understand how well the talent pipeline for women is growing and where success is taking place.


As I have mentioned on this blog before, we are not going to fix the mistakes of the past 10-20 years overnight, it will take time before any decisions made since Lord Davies come to fruition in terms of internal talent progression. It will certainly take time before the levels at and below Board are starting to fill with an appropriate representation of women. It’s crucial however that we are honest with ourselves around what progress really looks like since Lord Davies and find effective ways to demonstrate success when it occurs. A lot of the HR community are fantastic at sharing best practice and keen to have the right forums to allow them to do so. The collective desire to make a difference can be really powerful here and I hope we can continue to provide platforms for organisations to do just that.


There are a lot of clients we work with making a true change to their working model and approach to allow female talent to progress. The work they are doing will and is making a difference. Retention rates are improving significantly and tailored career paths and support for high talent women are having a huge impact. Progression is happening. Such success will take time however before it translates into increased executive board positions. Until then let’s not get too hung up on non -executive appointments as a measure of our progress. It doesn’t do justice to the pipeline work many are now undertaking and for others it’s too easy a statistic to hide behind.


Chris Parke, CEO of Talking Talent