UK third in Commonwealth ranking of number of women on public boards, behind Kiribati

Study shows number of women holding board positions in UK public sector has increased from 27% in 2015 to 43% in 2018

Research on the gender leadership gap was commissioned for the Heads of Government Summit 2018. Credit: Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment/PA

By Tamsin.Rutter

27 Apr 2018

The UK has come third in new research ranking Commonwealth countries by the number of board positions held by women across their respective public sectors.

In the UK, 43% of public sector board members are women, behind 56% for Kiribati and 44% for Namibia. In joint third place is Australia, also with 43%.

The research, led by Henley Business School and funded by the UK government, showed that 16 Commonwealth countries have reached a benchmark of 30% of board positions held by women.

It also showed just 10 countries had reached that benchmark for women in top political jobs, with the UK in fourteenth place in the ranking of female representation at cabinet and deputy level.


The study, commissioned for the Heads of Government Summit 2018, outlines the gender leadership gap across the public, private and political sectors.

It is the second time that the gender leadership gap has been benchmarked across the Commonwealth countries, with the first report published in 2015.

The UK’s percentage of women in board positions has increased since 2015, when it was 27%. Across the Commonwealth, the overall percentage of women in board positions has increased slightly from 23% in 2015 to 25% in 2018.

Henley Business School said the research showed that progress had slowed across the Commonwealth on closing the gender leadership gap. Some countries – including New Zealand, where women make up 35% of public boards, down from 37% in 2015 – are showing a decline in the number of women in top jobs.

In 2015, the research also showed the number of female directors and heads of department in the civil service of each Commonwealth government, which was 35% in the UK. Namibia had 57% women at this level, Jamaica 65% and New Zealand 50%.

Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, associate professor in entrepreneurship and leadership who led the research in both 2015 and 2018, said: “There is a lot of noise around what is being done, but results show progress is slow, and in fact has reversed in some cases.

“Previously quotas have been promoted as an effective means to achieve progress for women in leadership, however our findings show they have had mixed results.

“To achieve significant and sustainable change and increase the number of women into leadership requires a coordinated effort, strong direction from leaders and a clear focus on achieving goals set.”

Henley Business School’s full report is yet to be published but the study sets out three recommendations for countries to boost gender diversity at the leadership level.

The first is to measure and track progress on a regular basis of plans to improve female representation in top jobs.

The second is to identify key people accountable for gender leadership progress, both within governments and within organisations.

And the third is a focus on visibility and building relationships with media outlets to provide a platform for gender leadership.

At 17%, the analysis shows no overall improvement on the 2015 figure for the percentage of women in top political jobs across the Commonwealth.

The UK’s figure has declined, from 24% in 2015 to 22% in 2018.

But in the private sector, the UK has increased the number of women who hold senior executive and board positions from 14% to 23% between the two years. The overall percentage across Commonwealth countries has increased from 14.5% in 2015 to 20% in 2018.

The research also stated there has been a great deal of activity promoting gender equality in leadership over the past three years. Government action in the different countries has ranged from legislation imposing quotas and penalties for failure to comply, to the “lighter approach of awareness raising”.

The private sector was responsible for greatest amount of promotional activity, including interventions to improve recruitment and retention of women and to create a stronger pipeline of aspiring female leaders.

Significant and sustainable change to increase the number of female leaders requires a coordinated effort, the study said.

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