Efforts to bring more women onto the boards of FTSE 350 companies are being held back by selection processes that favour candidates who fit in with masculine boardroom cultures.
This is according to a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which found that, while executive search firms are making positive steps to get more women into top jobs, there are still barriers in the final stages of the recruitment process.
The report found that the voluntary code of conduct for executive search firms on gender diversity, brought in following a recommendation in the Davies review last year, has had some success in getting women onto the long-lists for board-level jobs.
However, when it came to drawing up short-lists, women were put at a disadvantage as they were judged on their ability to "fit in" with the values, norms and behaviours of existing board members, who were mostly men.
Baroness Prosser, deputy chair of EHRC, explained: "Research shows that diverse boards produce better performance. Many companies recognise this. We commissioned this report to support the efforts to improve the representation of women at board level.
"However, the often subjective way of making appointments ends up replicating existing boards rather than bringing in talented women who could bring real benefits to individual company performance and ultimately help Britain's economic recovery."
Karen Gill, co-founder of Everywoman, a network that provides advice for women trying to advance their careers, added that, while no longer selecting candidates based on cultural fit will "feel uncomfortable for those in positions of power" it is something that needs to be done.
"Executive search firms have made progress thanks to the voluntary code, but the push needs to continue and headhunters must drive the focus on competencies rather than this indefinable and dangerous notion of 'fit'," Gill commented.
"It's easy to hire the image of what you know, so chairmen must make a conscious decision to take the blinkers off and consider applicants on a proven track record. This will be a leap of faith for many but British boards don't need more of the same; they need women with the right competencies and a different perspective to bring to the table."
In response to the findings, EHRC has recommended that the selection process for executive boards should be made more "transparent, professional and rigorous" to allow chairmen and search agencies to appoint more women to boardroom roles and to encourage more women to apply for these positions.
It has also recommended that:
- Executive search firms should invest more time in developing relationships with women in the pipeline who could become executive or non-executive directors later in their careers.
- Regular reviews should be carried out of the effectiveness of the voluntary code.
- Executive search firms should set clear definitions as to what is sought from boardroom candidates, beyond their experience.
Read more on the role of HR in increasing boardroom diversity.