Time for change: More than 1 in 10 female leaders experience boardroom discrimination

Article Icon Press Release
August 16, 2022
5 min read
Sarah Carlyle, Marketing Director EMEA

H+K Strategies – Nick Palfrey, Account Director


A new study by Russell Reynolds Associates shows that over 10% of female leaders in the UK encountered workplace discrimination in the last year

16 August 2022 - Despite progress diversifying UK boardrooms, significant numbers of female directors still face discrimination in the heart of the boardroom itself. Data released in Russell Reynolds Associates’ (RRA) Global Board Culture and Director Behaviours Survey shows that more than one in 10 (13%) female directors in the UK have experienced discrimination in the boardroom in the past year. A small but significant minority (6%) of female board members have also experienced bullying or aggressive behaviour from other members of the board.

The research reveals that there is still work to be done to make board rooms more equitable for women. According to Russell Reynolds Associates, this discrimination takes the form of microaggressions, unequal pay, having ideas quickly dismissed, being excluded from work related events, and open sexist remarks.  While these attitudes are far from the norm for male leaders, the findings reveal that sexist attitudes are stubbornly persisting in some board rooms despite progress. The high profile case of Aviva’s annual general meeting where we saw Amanda Blanc, Aviva’s first ever female CEO subjected to sexist remarks and being openly told her that she was ‘not the man for the job’ and that she ‘should be wearing trousers’ is, sadly, not unusual.

Women in the UK are more than twice as likely as those in the USA (6%) or Australia (6%) to say they have experienced gender discrimination in the boardroom. More than 1100 supervisory board-level directors from companies with median revenue of between US$2-10 billion globally responded to the research. UK directors numbered 205 of the 1100 responses.

Laura Sanderson, UK Country Manager and co-lead of the board & CEO practice in Europe for Russell Reynolds Associates, explained:

“Government backed targets like the Hampton-Alexander Review have helped to increase the number of women entering the boardroom, but there is still more work to be done to make boards truly representative of the customers and the workforce that companies serve. And while many men are advocates for change, we’ve found that too many brilliant women are held back by a culture which marginalises them.

“Many senior women face sexist remarks at work, but to see it so boldly displayed during an AGM, like in Amanda Blanc’s case, highlights the extent of the problem. To enact real change, we must call out these behaviours in real time. We must openly talk about our experiences as it allows other women to know they are not alone and makes men more aware of the sexism that can exist in senior leadership positions, so they are equipped to be better allies.”

The findings also show the challenges of stopping at just one or two female board members, with 15% of women saying they feel outnumbered when raising diversity related issues on the board and 19% saying they struggle to get board members to consider issues outside of their personal experience.

In February, the FTSE 100 Women Leaders Report found that the number of FTSE 350 boards that met the 33% female leadership target, set in 2017, increased to 278 Boards, from 220 in 2020. This has prompted the target to be increased to 40% female leadership by 2025. The report also found that 52% of board members agree diversifying the board is a priority. 
While the outcome of the Hampton-Alexander Review and FTSE 100 Women Leaders Report have been viewed as positive progress in the UK, it is clear there is still more to be done to stamp out sexism in corporate Britain.


Notes to Editors

Key stats

  • Female leaders of some of the UK’s largest businesses experience discrimination within the boardroom itself
  • More than 10% of UK female leaders reported encountering discrimination in the boardroom in the last 12 months, while 6% faced bullying or aggressive behaviour
  • British female leaders are more than twice as likely to feel discriminated against than their American or Australian counterparts
  • In the face of those attitudes, 15% of female board members feel outnumbered raising diversity issues

About The Global Board Culture and Director Behaviours Survey

Russell Reynolds Associates fielded a survey in 41 countries from November 2020 to February 2021. Responses were collected from more than 1100 supervisory board-level directors. 
The directors sit on boards spanning all industries with a median company revenue in the range of $2–$10 billion. The survey asked over 25 questions focused on board culture, director behaviors and board effectiveness.

The survey questions to participants used a 1–5 scale to rate how often directors observe behaviours among fellow directors on the largest public company board on which they serve. Directors were asked to rate the effectiveness of that board, its chair, and its culture. They were additionally requested to rank the most and least important behaviours for driving board culture and effectiveness.

UK research

In the UK focus of the research, RRA analysed responses from 205 supervisory board-level directors, sixteen percent of the total sample size. Participants were asked to make trade-offs between multiple high-value options with the assumption that integrity was a foundational behaviour for any director. This resulted in a weighted score of the importance of each behaviour relative to the others.

About Russell Reynolds Associates

Russell Reynolds Associates is a global leadership advisory firm. Our 500+ consultants in 47 offices work with public, private, and nonprofit organizations across all industries and regions. We help our clients build teams of transformational leaders who can meet today’s challenges and anticipate the digital, economic, sustainability, and political trends that are reshaping the global business environment. From helping boards with their structure, culture, and effectiveness to identifying, assessing and defining the best leadership for organizations, our teams bring their decades of expertise to help clients address their most complex leadership issues. We exist to improve the way the world is led.