As a woman in business and now as a minister at the Department for Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), I know first-hand how difficult it can be to rise through the ranks and establish yourself professionally in the corporate world.
My first job was in a shop aged 16. I then went into retail management after a few years, and later worked for a not-for-profit, before founding my own consultancy business in 2008.
Back then, certain doors were much harder for women to open. All-male boards were the norm and were not a space in which women were welcome. For me this often hindered my confidence in my ability, and led me to doubt whether I could achieve more and progress further in my career.
Thankfully, today, there are obvious gaps in the glass ceiling, and more and more women have been able to break through.
Now more than one in three of all members of FTSE 350 boards are women.
This is a terrific achievement, and clear evidence of the significant progress that has been made to get women on boards since the government-backed Hampton Alexander Review was launched in 2016.
Indeed, in less than a decade the number of all-male boards in the FTSE 350 has fallen from an appalling 152 down to just one.
But while many companies are moving quickly and successfully towards gender parity in the boardroom, others are clearly lagging dangerously behind.
There are still more than 100 FTSE 350 boards that have failed to individually meet the 33 per cent target set by the Hampton Alexander Review – and one which has not got a single woman on its board. It is simply not acceptable in this day and age that one of the UK’s leading companies has only men sitting round the boardroom table.
Increasing women’s involvement in the workplace has never been more important than it is today, with evidence showing that Covid-19 has had a disproportionately negative impact on women.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that if left unchecked, 30 years of gains for women’s economic opportunities could be erased in just a few months. This is a warning that everyone should heed.
It is crucial that FTSE 350 companies do not allow the crisis to push them off course in seeking gender equality in the workplace.
This need not be considered a burden. Research has shown that diverse teams are more innovative, more productive and make better decisions. With diverse teams, businesses will not just be rebuilding from the pandemic – but building back better.
The Hampton-Alexander Review has been a real change agent since its launch in 2016, with the FTSE 100 surpassing the 33 per cent target set for women on boards at the end of last year, and FTSE 350 following suit today.
But there is still a lot more work to do within individual companies, as, today, over 40 per cent of the top 350 firms – more than 100 businesses – are still missing the mark.
The Hampton-Alexander Review’s final report, which will give an overview of which companies have made the grade on increasing diversity or not, will be published in February 2021.
FTSE 350 companies should not squander these last precious months. I urge every company to do what they can to increase the number of women sitting around the table.
And I also want to issue a warning for the future. This final report shouldn’t simply be an opportunity for businesses to pat themselves on the back and say ”target met – job done.”
Companies should be looking at the progress of the last decade, the excellent work they have done, and ask: “Can we go even further?”
Unless their board is truly representative of UK society, the answer should undoubtedly be yes.
Amanda Solloway is the Conservative minister for science, research and innovation at BEIS