UK trails behind on female representation in top business roles

Kirstie Pickering speaks to industry experts about why the UK's women are under-represented as business leaders.

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The UK is trailing behind other countries when it comes to female representation on boards as well as in venture capital funding and business leadership roles, according to new research published by William Russell.

The study looked at countries’ share of women on boards, companies with majority female ownership, and businesses with female top managers – with Iceland, Kazakhstan and Latvia topping the list for each category respectively. In Iceland, 47.1% of company boards are made up of women.

Women on top?

The UK failed to make the top five in each of these three categories, showing there is still significant work to be done to achieve fair representation at the top level of business. But why, in 2023, is this still proving a challenge?

“One key reason is the lingering gender bias and stereotypes that still exist in our society,” says Caoimhe Donnelly, co-founder and COO at UK startup Legitimate. “Traditionally, leadership positions have been predominantly occupied by men, and these ingrained perceptions can influence the decision-making process when it comes to appointing leaders or forming boards. 

“As well as this, unconscious biases can play a role in making this under-representation worse, as people may unintentionally favour individuals who conform to traditional leadership expectations – mainly men.”

Bias to blame

As a BAME female founder, Radha Vyas, CEO and co-founder of Flash Pack, says she has encountered many of the challenges shared by women in similar positions, and they are further amplified by the intersectionality of her identity. 

“Despite my achievements, I still encounter instances where I am patronised or subjected to biased assumptions,” says Vyas. “Some individuals question my level of ambition, using my role as a mother as a basis for dismissing or belittling my professional aspirations as not aggressive enough.

“Simultaneously, others attribute my drive and ambition solely to my status as a mother, labelling it as excessive. These experiences reflect the complex and often contradictory expectations placed upon women who balance both motherhood and entrepreneurial pursuits.”

A force for change

In 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to introduce a policy that requires companies with more than 25 employees to prove that they pay men and women with a job of equal value the same. In 2020, it built on this with a bill that states fines would be imposed on Icelandic businesses whose public company boards have less than 40% gender equality.

In April last year, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) introduced new listing rules requiring companies to disclose whether they meet specific board diversity targets in their annual report – but what more can be done to ensure women are fairly represented at the top levels of business? 

“Creating awareness and challenging gender biases is crucial,” says Donnelly. “We also need to foster mentorship and sponsorship programmes to support aspiring female leaders.

“Additionally – and I think this may be most important of all – is addressing education, and how technology and business is taught as early as primary school. It’s essential to encourage young girls and women to pursue STEM fields and entrepreneurship from an early age. 

“By promoting gender equality in education and providing resources and support for women in tech, we can help cultivate a more diverse talent pool and encourage more women to become founders and leaders.”

Female funding

When it comes to boosting the number of female founders in the UK, Vyas believes significant work needs to be done on accessibility to funding – notably by increasing allocation, female-focused investment funds, investor education and outreach, and collaborating with angel investors and crowdfunding platforms.

“Governments can play a role in encouraging investments in female-founded businesses by offering incentives to venture capital firms or implementing policies that promote gender diversity in entrepreneurship,” adds Vyas. “This can include tax benefits, grants, or matching funds to incentivise investments in women-led startups.”

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Kirstie Pickering - business journalist

Kirstie is a freelance journalist writing in the tech, startup and business spaces for publications including Sifted, TNW, UKTN, The Business Magazine and Maddyness UK. She also works closely with agencies such as CEW Communications to develop content for their startup and scaleup clients.

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