Media Briefings

WOMEN IN THE BOARDROOM: New evidence of persistent gender bias at the UK’s top companies

  • Published Date: February 2014

The UK’s biggest companies remain biased when appointing women to their boards, according to new research by Dr Ian Gregory-Smith and colleagues, published in the February 2014 issue of the Economic Journal.

Analysing the board composition and performance of the UK’s 350 biggest companies listed on the Financial Times Stock Exchange between 1996 and 2010, the study finds that:

· The percentage of female directors increased from more than 2% in 1996 to more than 8% in 2010. But the chances of women being appointed to boards remain low.

· The only factor that significantly increases the probability of a woman being appointed to a board is if a woman has recently stepped down, which raises questions of tokenism. Worse still, when men exit the boardroom – a far more common event – women are less likely to be appointed.

· Despite some recent progress, women have at best a one-in-five chance of being made non-executive directors, and those hired are paid around 8% less than their male counterparts.

· While there appears to be no pay gap or hiring bias at the executive level, appointments to these positions remain rare with fewer than one-in-twenty executive directors being female.

· There is no evidence to suggest that having more women in the boardroom either increases or decreases the company’s productivity.

The authors argue that current discussions of appointing more women to raise company profits misses the point. Women should be treated fairly regardless of whether the company makes more money as a result. The report argues that more women should be appointed for moral, if not economic, reasons.

Companies often argue that a shortage of qualified candidates prevents them appointing more women to boards. Even if that were the case, in an equal world, the chances of a woman securing a board appointment should not depend on the gender of the person who previously held the job.

But this research shows that whereas there might be a 20% chance of appointing a woman if another woman just left the board, the chances fall to only 10% when a man had previously held the job. This behaviour tends to put a brake on change and perpetuates the male dominance of boardrooms.

Co-author Professor Brian Main of the University of Edinburgh Business School comments:

‘There is clear evidence that the process of making non-executive boardroom appointments is not yet gender-neutral.

‘Once in the boardroom, women executive directors seem to be paid as well as their male counterparts. But for non-executive directors, the rewards for women lag behind those for men.’

Co-author Dr Ian Gregory-Smith of the University of Sheffield adds:

‘The moral case for gender diversity in the boardroom is unambiguous. The challenge for companies and regulators is to adopt progressive policies that promote diversity even if there is no immediate payoff in terms of firm productivity.

‘Our evidence shows they must try harder.’


Notes for editors: ‘Appointments, Pay and Performance in UK Boardrooms by Gender’ by Ian Gregory-Smith, Brian Main and Charles O’Reilly is published in the February 2014 issue of the Economic Journal.

Ian Gregory-Smith is at the University of Sheffield. Brian Main is at the University of Edinburgh Business School. Charles O’Reilly is at Stanford University.

For further information: contact Ian Gregory-Smith on +44 (0) 114 222 3317 (email: or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Twitter: @econromesh).