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‘Work is never done’ in battle for boardroom equality: ex-FTSE review boss

Nearly seven out of 10 of the “most powerful jobs in UK business” are still going to men and there remains “much more to do” to boost female representation in Britain’s boardrooms, the former boss of the FTSE Women Leaders Review has warned.

Denise Wilson, who stepped down at the end of March after 13 years leading the government-sponsored review, said while great strides have been made in increasing gender parity in UK boardrooms, women are still finding barriers to many of the top jobs.

When she first became chief executive of the then-Davies Review in 2011, only 9% of boardroom positions were held by women.

That had jumped to 42% when she released her final report as chief executive of the review earlier this year.

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But she said there’s still a “long, long way to go”.

She told PA news agency that at the start of her career, “when I looked up, I could only ever see a sea of senior white men”.

“Now there’s more women in leadership positions, although not enough.

“In the equalities space, the work is never done and will never be done,” she said.

“There’s always more to do.”

The latest report from the taskforce showed that women still make up less than a third (30%) of executive committees in FTSE 100 listed companies – with just 21 female chief executives in the wider FTSE 350.

And of the appointments made last year across 26,000 board and leadership roles, around 65% went to men, the review found.

“They’re the most powerful jobs in UK business,” she said.

“With six to seven out of 10 (of these) roles going to men, there’s much more to do,” she added.

In her new role as chairwoman of the Girlguiding board of trustees, Ms Wilson is keen to show how the organisation can give girls the confidence and life skills they need early on to boost their chances of taking on leadership positions in their careers.

Having been a brownie and girl guide herself, she said it gave her invaluable experiences that also boosted her confidence.

She said her first camping trip was a “liberating experience” and showed that “with enough hard work, determination and the right support, I could do anything – and that girls can do anything”.

“That was a revelation to me.”

“I do think that’s what helped to form some of my confidence in the workplace,” she said.

She was one of the first women to take on senior roles in her sector, having worked at British Gas and then in BG Group and Transco after they demerged, and later at National Grid.

She headed up the investor relations and global audit divisions at National Grid and was also global transformation director during her tenure at the firm.

She said her time in Girlguiding helped give her the confidence to go for roles previously only held by men.

“It was those early experiences that gave me that confidence,” she said.

But there are still barriers that girls and women face in climbing up the ranks, she said, with the lack of affordable childcare among other factors holding some back.

Recent high profile sexual harassment scandals in the business sector could also threaten to hinder progress, she cautioned.

She said these scandals have ensured those previously deemed as “untouchables” are now held to account.

But she said it may make some firms worried to appoint women.

“It would be a shame if that makes too many people fearful of being alone with women, or of appointing women if it introduces a level of nervousness,” she said.

Ms Wilson, who was made an OBE in 2016 for services to women and equality, said Gen Z workers in particular are pushing for change.

“They don’t want to work in an unequal workplace,” she said.

But despite this push, she said that gender stereotyping is still a “big issue”.

She hopes that being part of Girlguiding can give girls the “resilience” needed to combat this in their careers, while also “having fun and being outdoors, which is key to learning and mental and physical health”.

“You need to build confidence in girls from a very early age.

“They need that resilience when they go into the workplace.”