Women on Boards: Hitting an Ambitious Goal

How the UK achieved a female leadership milestone, and how to keep it from becoming a millstone.

It was an ambitious goal when it was set in 2010: triple the percentage of female board directors on corporate boards by 2020. But as this new year dawned, more than three out of every ten directors—30.6%, to be exact—at the 250 largest publicly traded firms in the UK are women. The goal now? Keep up the effort without a highly publicized campaign.

The 30% Club, the UK activist organization that set the target a decade ago, announced shortly before the beginning of the new year that the goal had been achieved. It’s significantly higher than the representation in the United States, where fewer than one-quarter of directors at S&P 100 firms are women.

Experts say the UK hit the milestone by making sure to recruit key groups. Government figures, including then Prime Minister David Cameron, were early backers. Hundreds of private company leaders signed on as well, says Mary Macleod, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and former British member of Parliament who helped set up the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee. “They probably wouldn’t have had as much success if it hadn’t been a collective effort,” she says. “A lot of the time it is about having someone at the top believe in it.”

A parliamentary review in 2016 gave another boost to the effort; so did having targets and an easy-to-follow metric to measure progress. “Unless you really have some interventions, measurements, and positive actions, it won’t happen by itself,” Macleod says.

Still, bold goals can backfire, says Ben Frost, Korn Ferry’s global manager for pay. They focus leadership, he says, but sometimes more on a target than on developing a long-lasting.  “I fear that some companies will achieve that target without doing any of the things to make it sustainable,” he says. “They won’t have fixed the underlying issues.”

Having women in executive and board-director roles often leads to better corporate decision-making and other positive business results, according to research from Korn Ferry and others. But the boardroom is still predominantly male, both in the UK and worldwide. The 30% Club now has chapters in 14 countries, but only the UK has reached the namesake milestone.

Experts say that the way to keep the ranks of female directors increasing is to develop and maintain a healthy pipeline of qualified female candidates. That requires several steps, Frost says, including making sure that women have a fair shot at getting the jobs and opening the door to rehiring women who take time off to raise a family. "You need to think about the pipeline and how many women are in the pipeline," he says.