However, there is still scepticism over whether firms are boosting their numbers by bringing in female non-executive members, instead of promoting women into executive roles through their internal structures.
The report, by Lord Davies – a former banker and government minister – shows that the number of women on blue-chip company boards has nearly doubled over the past four years. More than 40 FTSE 100 firms have boards where at least 25 per cent of the members are female.
And there were no male-only FTSE 100 boards. The representation of women on the FTSE 250 has more than doubled to 18 per cent, up from 7.8 per cent in 2011.
Business secretary Vince Cable welcomed the report. He said: “FTSE 100 boards have made enormous progress in the last four years, almost doubling female representation to just shy of 25 per cent. We must celebrate this outstanding achievement and the change in culture that is taking hold at the heart of British business.
“The evidence is irrefutable: boards with a healthy female representation outperform their male-dominated rivals. I am confident we will reach our target this year, but our work is not complete. British business must keep its eye on the long game, as we strive to achieve gender parity.”
Lord Davies said: “The rate of change that we have seen in FTSE 100 companies over the last four years has been remarkable. The voluntary approach is working, boards are getting fixed. We now have to increase the low number of chairs and executive directors on boards and address the loss of talented, senior women from the executive pipeline.”
Senior business women praised the progress. Leena Nair, the global head of diversity at Unilever, whose board is 35.7 per cent female, said: “We welcome Lord Davies’ report. The business case for inclusivity is plain to see. It makes for a stronger company making better decisions. At Unilever, we’re continuing to focus on flexible working, and both maternity and paternity support.”
However, Heather Jackson, the founder of business diversity organisation An Inspirational Journey, said there was still “leakage in the middle, and it’s not all down to children and childbirth. We need to get more of those women in middle management to keep on with their careers when it gets hard”.