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UK study says women will make up 25 per cent of boards in top companies by end of 2015

LONDON – The percentage of women on the boards of the country’s top companies is on track to meet a target of 25 per cent by the end of the year, a study tracking female achievement said Tuesday.

The report from the Cranfield International Center for Women Leaders said that 23.5 per cent of boards of the companies listed on the U.K.’s main stock index, the FTSE 100, are now comprised of women, up from 20.7 per cent last year. Some 263 directorships are held by women.

Though a paltry 8.6 per cent of women are in executive directorships, that figure represents an all-time high.

“This is a critical time for British businesses, not just to meet the 25 per cent target, but also to continue to diversify their boards and organizations beyond the 2015 target,” said report co-author Ruth Sealy. The 25 per cent target is a voluntary goal set up by a British government steering group.

The progress is important because of the symbolic significance placed on the board level — and the message it sends to other women in the so-called pipeline to get to the top. The focus on boards has forced companies trying to figure out why women professionals were leaving at every level on their way to the corporate suite, despite programs designed to keep them.

With growing evidence to suggest that gender equity improves profitability, top U.K. firms are being pushed to act. Progress is also coming from data showing the cost of losing top talent.

“They understand it is costing them money,” Sealy said. “That’s what makes them act.”

Also pushing companies is the threat of quotas on boards and the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, which some said was exacerbated by a lack of diversity and viewpoints within corporate leadership.

Researchers say the government reviews and the threat of EU-wide quotas have had a major impact on the makeup of boards. Some 41 of the FTSE 100 companies has hit the 25 per cent target, with two companies, Diageo and Intercontinental Hotels Group, hitting 45 per cent female participation.

“It is crucial that the momentum that has built up around this issue is maintained,” said report co-author Susan Vinnicombe.