Female Board Membership Rises in Europe as Top Spots Remain Male

Female board membership at Europe’s biggest companies has more than doubled in a decade, approaching the level in the U.S., even as women represent just 5.4 percent of directors who wield executive power.

Women held 20.3 percent of board directorships at European businesses valued at more than 4 billion euros ($5 billion), compared with 15.6 percent two years ago and just 8 percent in 2004, London-based Egon Zehnder said today. The consulting firm studied more than 350 companies in 17 European countries.

The results placed Europe on par with the U.S., with 21.2 percent, and compares with a non-Europe average of 11.6 percent. While women gained board seats in the biennial survey, efforts on executive board appointments are “stagnant,” Egon Zehnder said. Women held about 1 in 19 of executive director positions in Europe, compared with 1 in 12 in the U.S.

“Plenty of work remains in identifying a wider pool of female board candidates as well as retaining executive-level women and assuring their advancement within organizations so there is ample readiness to pivot to the boardroom,” said Edwin Smelt, co-leader of the consultant’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Council.

European governments, political parties and executive groups have increasingly pushed for more women to be appointed to boards. In the U.K., the 30 Percent Club is advocating for gender diversity without forced quotas, while in Norway a 40 percent mandate resulted in a number of companies delisting from the Oslo Stock Exchange.

Better Decisions

Companies with diverse boards make better decisions, Barbara Byrne, vice chairman of investment banking at Barclays Plc, said last month at the Bloomberg Markets Most Influential Summit in New York. Her call was echoed by Helena Morrissey, founder of the 30 Percent Club and chief executive officer of Newton Capital Management.

The five countries worldwide with the highest percentage of women on large corporate boards are European, Egon Zehnder found. Norway led the results, with women holding 38.9 percent of board positions. Finland, France, Sweden and the U.K., which tied with Australia, rounded out the top five.

The European figures are well ahead of large companies in China, with 9.2 percent; India, at 8.8 percent; Russia, with 5.6 percent; and Japan, with 3.3 percent. Poland, Hungary, Indonesia and Chile are among countries making progress, according to the report. Eastern European countries were included in the global portion of the study.

This year, the U.K., Austria and Ireland joined the Nordic countries and France on the list of European companies that have a female member on all of the boards surveyed.

The study showed that 99 percent of surveyed companies in the U.S. have a female board member, compared with 92.4 percent for Europe. In 2006, 32.2 percent of European boards studied had no women.