7 minute read 7 Oct 2021
Lady holding a tablet

Why meeting boardroom targets is only one step towards gender equality

By Alison Kay

EY UK&I Managing Partner for Client Service

Focused on delivering long-term value through purpose for clients. Diversity and inclusion ambassador. Happiest when spending time with family and friends. Loves to be near the ocean.

7 minute read 7 Oct 2021

The Female FTSE Board Report 2021, published by Cranfield University and sponsored by EY, inspires cautious optimism and food for thought.

In brief
  • In aggregate, FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 boards have met, indeed exceeded, the five-year Alexander-Hampton targets, set in 2015.
  • 38% of FTSE 100 board members are women, while women account for 35% of FTSE 250 board members, versus a target of 33%.
  • Not only do these figures vary widely across boards, but only 27% of FTSE 100 and 18% of FTSE 250 boards have female executive directors.

Reading the Cranfield University School of Management’s latest Female FTSE Board Report left me with a sense of cautious optimism mixed with a recognition that we still have a long journey ahead of us when it comes to achieving gender equality in the boardroom – and across the entire workplace. 

July 2021 FTSE 100 % FTSE 250 %
Female held directorships 393 37.7% 688 34.9%
Female executive directorships 31 13.7% 47 11.3%
Female non-executive directorships 362 44.4% 641 41.2%
Companies with female executive directors 27 27.0% 45 18.0%
Companies with at least 33% female directors 79 79.0% 169 67.6%

Let’s begin with the positives – of which there are many. It is certainly encouraging to see that, in aggregate, all FTSE 100 companies and FTSE 250 companies have met – in fact: exceeded – Hampton-Alexander’s 33% target of women on their board by the end of 2020. Another positive I took from the report is that the percentage of female Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) in FTSE 100 boardrooms stands at an all-time high of 44.4%, while the equivalent figure in FTSE 250 boardrooms is 41.2%.

But the further I look beyond the headline figures, the more work I see ahead of us. For example, there is still a wide variance in the rate of progress between different companies: 21% of FTSE 100 boards and 32% of FTSE 250 boards have not yet reached Hampton-Alexander’s 33% target. The authors of the report are frank in their response to this finding, noting: “It is time to address the problem of these recalcitrant companies who do not take gender diversity seriously.”

Another cause for concern is the number of women who hold executive positions at board level. On the FTSE 100, just 31 (13.7%) women hold executive directorships in 27 companies while the equivalent figure on the FTSE 250 is 47 (11.3%) in 45 companies. There are eight women in CEO roles, 26 in CFO/FD roles and four in COO roles on the FTSE 250; while on the FTSE 100, there are now eight women in CEO roles and 15 in CFO/FD roles.

So, what do businesses need to focus on next to ensure – in the spirit of the Female FTSE Board Report – inclusion works for everyone? The four main themes to emerge from the report provide a good starting point. First, having a critical mass of women on boards is important, but not enough. Second succession planning and serious talent management are essential. The third point to keep in mind is that women in senior roles send out a powerful message but the roles of the CEO and Chair are crucial. And finally, rather than gender diversity being a trickle-down process, it is more likely to be generative.

At EY, we are working hard to create a workplace and culture where all our people feel they belong. We are making progress but we need to accelerate the pace of change to really make a difference. 

In 2019, EY set targets to double the proportion of female and ethnic minority partners in our UK business to 40% female and 20% from ethnic minority background, of which 15% will be Black, by July 2025. Of course, metrics and targets have an important role to play in achieving change. But we know that achieving gender equality is also about actively nurturing a culture across our organisation that gives people a sense of belonging, by valuing them as individuals above numbers.

Our Accelerate programme, for example, takes a totally new approach to developing high-potential women into leaders using a blended approach of face-to-face and virtual learning to encourage flexibility. In addition, our Navigator programme offers a series of workshops for female managers and new senior managers. Meanwhile, our Gender Working Group is actively committed to raising female representation throughout EY, particularly at senior leadership level.

From the top down, accountability is integral to the drive for workplace equality. After all, one truth that successive reports on the Hampton-Alexander targets have demonstrated is that although there is no silver bullet to bringing about cultural change, leadership accountability remains fundamental.


We have made encouraging progress along the road towards gender equality in the boardroom and in the workplace. The good news is that in 2020, FTSE 100 companies and FTSE 250 companies exceeded the Hampton-Alexander targets. But we still have a long way to go.

About this article

By Alison Kay

EY UK&I Managing Partner for Client Service

Focused on delivering long-term value through purpose for clients. Diversity and inclusion ambassador. Happiest when spending time with family and friends. Loves to be near the ocean.