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More women are getting to the boardroom but few reach the very top

More women are getting into the boardroom of Britain's top companies than ever before - but very few are breaking through to senior executive positions, new research shows.

Some 17.3 per cent of FTSE 100 directors are women, an increase of almost 5 per cent from February 2011 and of more than 10 per cent since 1999. Furthermore, 44 per cent of board appointments in the last six months have been women, according to figures released by BoardWatch.

The increases have encouraged analysts to predict that the government's target of achieving at least 25 per cent female representation on FTSE 100 boards will be met ahead of the 2015 deadline.

What these figures don't show is the dearth of women getting through to the highest executive levels. There are only 20 female executive directors in FTSE 100 companies. All of the 18 new executive directors who joined Britain's top one-hundred companies this year have been men, according to BoardWatch.

The findings fall broadly in line with figures recently released by Egon Zehnder International about the boards of Europe's largest companies. Female representation has doubled to 16 per cent in the last eight years but only 1.7 per cent of chair positions included in the research were held by women.

Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggested that the appointment system itself is part of the problem, as it tends to replicate 'existing boards rather than bringing in talented women'. The study showed that top appointments were often controlled by a 'homogenous elite group of individuals at the top of FTSE 100 companies'.

This comes despite a growing body of studies that are making a strong business case for greater diversity at the top table. The Credit Suisse Research Institute recently found that companies with women directors routinely outperformed male-only boards. A survey by Inspire and Harvey Nash found that 64 per cent of executives believe women contribute a greater level of 'emotional intelligence', empathy and communication skills. Nine out of ten (92 per cent) thought women could bring welcome new perspectives to board-level decision making.

The Cranfield School of Management report calculated that businesses with a higher proportion of women in the boardroom created a 66 per cent higher return on capital and a 42 per cent higher return in sales than their competitors.

An inclusive and diverse working environment propels innovation, bolsters employee engagement, increases retention and enhances productivity. Acas has a network of advisers around the country who can help organisations develop equality and diversity policies and practices, recommend improvements and help implement them. Acas can help with equal opportunities policies, recruitment systems, monitoring and targets and many other related areas.

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