Whilst 27.7% of FTSE 100 directorships are now held by women, the pace of growth has slowed. Indeed, there may be some resistance to advancing that number significantly despite the UK Government’s Hampton-Alexander Review, which has challenged all FTSE 350 companies to make sure at least a third of their board members are women by 2020. The team leading the review published a list of the worst ‘explanations’ from a range of FTSE 350 Chairs and CEOs for not having women among their top employees. Outrageous and patronising ‘explanations’ or excuses for not appointing more women include suggestions that women are not able to understand the ‘extremely complex’ issues FTSE boards deal with; the idea women do not want the ‘hassle or pressure’ of sitting on a top board and there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector.

It should be clear that for UK plc to thrive our organisations (be they government, FTSE, private sector, public sector or civil society) need to search and draw the best-of-the-best talent from the widest possible pools. This is required given the world we live in now being shaped by digital technology, more open markets and increased competition – all accelerating the need for change and also, what many call, the ‘war for talent’. As a result, to find new solutions to both old and new problems we must work also with people who are different, challenging and outstanding.

The privilege, preference and even mediocrity of yesterday must be replaced by the equality, opportunity and meritocracy of today.

We hope that gone are the days when a new senior leader or Non-Executive Director’s main ‘skill’ was being in the right circle of gatekeepers, drawn from the ranks of men who are white and from privileged family backgrounds and would simply ‘fit’ with the existing Board and culture. However, progress towards a fairer and more meritorious society remains painfully slow.

The talent pool of qualified, high-calibre senior-executive women, ethnic minorities, disabled folk and other poorly represented groups is broad and available; however, oftentimes, the opportunity is not – blocked by gatekeepers and their antediluvian attitudes.

Furthermore practical solutions exist to boost the pipeline and visibility of women and minorities. Board Apprentice is a not-for-profit social franchise dedicated to increasing diversity and quality on boards globally. We do this by widening the pool of board-ready talent – developing tomorrow’s board members today – by allowing ‘qualified, high-calibre diversifying individuals (apprentices) to observe a board at close hand for a year. We would like to see every board have a seat at the board table for an apprentice. Participating boards become part of a practical solution to the perceived lack of board-ready, diverse candidates.

In addition, we at Board Apprentice are in the rather unique position as being the only practical solution that Boards themselves can implement as highlighted in three reviews. Firstly, we run the Future Boards Scheme in partnership with UK Government Investments and the 30% Club for senior executive women as part of the UK Government’s Hampton-Alexander Review on gender diversity in FTSE organisations. We then featured in Sir John Parker’s Review on ethnic minority diversity in the FTSE and, most recently, as a practical solution for disability and Boards in the review from KPMG and Purple.

The belief that: “The market economy… is the most effective enemy of discrimination between individuals, classes and races” has not proved to be the case. With even greater irony, these are the words of former politician Enoch Powell, not normally considered an ally in the cause for equality, diversity and inclusion. The lack of opportunities afforded to women and minorities represent a substantial loss to UK PLC.

If gatekeepers and their organisations are not willing to better fish in these rich, wide pools of diversifying talent, or use the practical solutions available in our market economy – then it really is time for Government intervention to level the playing field and ensure that UK PLC prospers from bridging the opportunity and pay gap for all.


Author: Dowshan Humzah, Director & Chair of UK Advisory Board, Board Apprentice Global