The UK's largest companies are failing to promote female executives to senior management roles, potentially creating a shortage of women qualified to fill future boardroom roles and undermining initiatives to appoint more female directors.
Analysis by the Guardian of 50 of the UK's most valuable companies shows that women account for only 14% of staff serving on executive committees – the management level just one rung below the boardroom and which are viewed as the pipeline of talent to fill future board vacancies.
The figures imply that women occupying jobs at executive committee level are even more scarce than on FTSE 100 boards, with the latest numbers from the Professional Boards Forum showing just 17.3% of blue chip directors are women.
The data has emerged as Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice and rights, prepares to present on Tuesday her plan for a mandatory quota of female board directors on boards at listed companies, despite fierce opposition from many of the EU's member states.
Reding is proposing that companies should be forced to ensure that at least 40% of their board members are women by 2020, although the commissioner's plans have run into stiff, British-led resistance that could wreck the idea.
Prof Susan Vinnicombe of Cranfield University School of Management, who was also a member of the steering group that supported Lord Davies' 2011 report on women in the boardroom, said: "The urgent issue is the pipeline. We are confident that we can hit 30%, 40% targets for women on the board, but the question is if that is sustainable. The biggest issue is the lack of women executives [full-time company staff rather than part-time, independent non-executives]."
Only 6% of executive directors are women and two of the highest profile female bosses – Pearson chief executive Majorie Scardino and WH Smith chief executive Kate Swann – announced their departures earlier this month.
While tThe issue of how few women have been promoted to the top of businesses is likely to attract renewed focus over the next month as other initiatives, in addition to Reding's proposals, gain traction.
The equalities minister, Jo Swinson, last week unveiled a proposed shakeup to company annual reports that will pile pressure on firms to tackle gender imbalances. British companies will soon be forced to report how many women they employ, from top executives and board members down.
The UK, which supports a voluntary code to increase the number of female directors, in contrast to Reding's proposal, can argue that its approach has resulted in some success since the publication of the Davies report, which set a target of 25% of board seats being filled by female directors by 2015.
Since then, the percentage of female FTSE 100 directors has grown from 12.5% to 17.3%, but the increase has been almost entirely driven by companies hiring more part-time non-executives.
The number of female non-executives in top companies has climbed from 15.6% to 21.5%, while the proportion of executive directors is up from 5.5% to just 6.6%.
Tom Schuller, director of thinktank Longview and the author of a book to be released next year on the under-utilisation of women's talents in business, said: "Women get stuck at levels below their competence. It is well known that girls have been getting better results at school than boys. But there is something more. Once in work, women participate more frequently in training activities. The human capital gap continues to accumulate after school when you get to the workplace."
Schuller will be one of the main speakers, alongside Cherie Booth QC and Lady Prosser, deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, at a panel discussion on women in leadership, which has been scheduled to coincide with next month's release of the Chartered Management Institute's annual gender salary survey.
Last year, the body's research revealed that women would have to wait another 98 years for parity in pay, if current trends were maintained.
Another recent report from the CMI, polling 38,843 employees across 160 organisations, demonstrated how fewer and fewer women are employed at progressively higher levels within business, mirroring the Guardian's data, which also discovered that there was a strong bias towards natural resources and engineering groups among the companies employing no women on their executive committees.
The commodity trading group Glencore – one of eight FTSE 100 companies with an all-male board – has also failed to appoint any women to serve on its management committee of senior executives.
The group's chairman, Simon Murray, created a media storm last year when he said that women preferred bringing up children to the boardroom. Glencore declined to comment.
Of the other major companies with no women on their executive committees, the oil group BP and natural gas company BG Group, which both have female representation on their main boards, said they employed many women in senior roles and that they were working to increase those numbers.
The quota question – in quotes
'I reject the assumption that with quotas come substandard women – that is patronising and sexist'
Martha Lane Fox, internet entrepreneur, chairman of Lucky Voice karaoke bars, non-executive director of Marks & Spencer and mydeco.com
'Unless you have quotas and live by them, you won't see change in this company or the country'
Moya Greene, Royal Mail chief executive
'You should choose people on the basis of their abilities. Not on the basis of things they can't do anything about'
Dame Marjorie Scardino, outgoing chief executive of Financial Times owner Pearson
'I think it is probably wrong on balance to force companies to take women on'
Karren Brady, West Ham Utd vice chairman, Kerrang! chairman, non-exec at Mothercare, Sport England, Arcadia and Syco
FTSE 100-listed companies with all‑male boards
Glencore (commodities and mining)
Randgold Resources (mining)
Vedanta Resources (metals and mining)
Xstrata (metals and mining)
SOURCE: PROFESSIONAL BOARDS FORUM
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