LONDON More women are sitting on the boards of Britain's biggest companies but the glass ceiling is yet to crack, with most top jobs still held by men and companies needing to do more for gender balance, a report showed on Wednesday.
The latest of three British government reports on gender in boardrooms found women now hold a fifth, or 20.7 percent, of board positions in FTSE 100 companies, up from 17.3 percent in April 2013 and 12.5 percent in 2011, but short of a 2015 target.
The figures showed women accounted for 6.9 percent of executive directorships in the FTSE 100 while making up 25.5 percent of non-executive directorships and their representation on FTSE 250 company boards fell to 15.6 percent.
The report by former trade minister Mervyn Davies comes during a debate in many countries and the European Union about the pros and cons of mandatory quotas to boost women numbers at the top. Critics argue that quotas lead to "trophy directors".
Davies, who left his role as Standard Chartered (STAN.L) chief executive in 2009 to enter government, oversaw a review into the lack of women board members in 2011 and set a target to have women in one quarter of British boardroom seats by 2015.
"The rate of change that we have seen at the heart of our biggest companies over the last three years has been impressive," said Davies.
"However, the eyes of the world are on us as we enter the home straight. They are judging us as to whether the voluntary approach, rather than regulation, will work - we need to now prove we can do this on our own."
QUOTES OR VOLUNTARY?
While countries such as Norway, the Netherlands, and France have introduced mandatory quotas, Britain and Germany have resisted such moves.
Davies, who returned to the City after the 2010 national election and sits on several boards himself, stopped short of mandatory quotas and recommended FTSE 350 companies set their own targets instead which was welcomed in the corporate world.
Several British banks released targets on gender balance in their annual results for the first time this year.
HSBC HSBC.L is aiming to have women in 25 percent of senior roles by 2014/15, up from 22.7 percent; Lloyds (LLOY.L) has a target of 40 percent by 2020 compared to 28 percent now; and Barclays (BARC.L) is eyeing 26 percent by 2018, up 5 points from now.
Despite the voluntary drive, Britain still lags some countries on female presence with only four FTSE 100 companies having female chief executive.
Two FTSE 100 firms, Glencore Xstrata (GLEN.L) and Antofagasta (ANTO.L), have no women in the boardroom - although both told Reuters they were looking for suitable women board members - and there are 48 all-male boards among FTSE 250 companies.
Audrey Williams, partner at global law firm Eversheds, said more could be done to drive up women numbers at top levels without using quotas such as sponsoring and mentoring women.
"There is a fear that quotas lead to tokenism and women are not appointed on merit but the Davies reports have acted as a kind of catalyst and given organizations more strength of voice to push forward the agenda," she told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Steve Slater, Editing by Alison Williams)