Next gen British boards set to remain pale, male and stale, new research finds

London, 9 July 2019 – A lack of genuine diversity at the top of British business suggests that there will be little change in the C-Suite in coming years, according to research out today by ICSA: The Governance Institute, London Business School’s Leadership Institute and Elisabeth Marx Associates.

Based upon comparative research with ‘A View at the Top’, which looked at the composition of FTSE 100 boards in 1996, this latest research ─ launched today at ICSA’s Annual Conference in London ─ finds that, while there has been progress in gender diversity at non-executive director level, boards remain more obviously male, as well as significantly whiter than the British population. What is more, directors are increasing in age, with little diversity in terms of educational or career background.

According to Professor Randall S Peterson, Academic Director, London Business School Leadership Institute the picture looks set to continue as next generation directors are equally as elite-educated and male as current executives:

“In many of the headline-grabbing areas that the initial 1996 research uncovered there has been genuine and sometimes radical change, such as the increase of female directors from 4% to 28% and international experience in the boardroom climbing from 24% to 57%. In other areas, however, little has changed: a quarter of all directors are educated at Oxbridge or Harvard and the percentage of female executive directors has climbed from 1% to just 3%. Alarmingly, in some ways the boardroom is becoming significantly less diverse, such as the increase in the percentage of directors with a background in finance and a growing lack of international experience, which could potentially narrow the focus in British boardrooms.”

Board changes between 1996 and 2017 are as follows:

  • The average board size has reduced to 11 directors from 12, of which 26% are executives and 74% are non-executives, compared to 49% executive and 51% non-executives in 1996 • 28% of board directors are women compared to 4.1% in 1996
  • The average age of a FTSE 100 board director is 58.5 years compared to 56 in 1996; non-executive directors are on average 60 years old and executives 53 years of age (unchanged from 1996)
  • Directors with an accountancy or finance background predominate (49%, up from 38%) • 57% of directors have international experience, more than twice the percentage in 1996 (24%)
  • The majority of board directors are university-educated and a considerable number hold degrees from top international universities and business schools (including Oxbridge, Edinburgh, Harvard and other top US universities, and international business schools such as INSEAD and LBS)
  • The most admired companies in 1996 as well as in the present tend to have more females, more executive directors and the boards are less heavy on finance backgrounds.

“Since I first reported on the state of FTSE 100 boards, board size has reduced, particularly in terms of the number of executives. This raises a number of important questions about how well the non-executives know the executive bench strength and the extent to which CEO selection might be affected by direct in-depth exposure to fewer executives. Moreover, the prevalence of directors with an accountancy/finance background carries a risk that Nomination Committees might be recruiting in their own image and are not sufficiently diverse to look at the broadest range of non-executive candidates. We need a much broader definition of diversity, reflecting the complexity of business and addressing a wider set of diversity criteria all at the same time, rather than a ‘piecemeal’ approach”, suggests Dr Elisabeth Marx of Elisabeth Marx Associates.

According to Peter Swabey, Policy and Research Director at ICSA: The Governance Institute: “One way that boards are judged is whether they represent the population they serve. We have come a long way since 1996, but there is still a distance to go. The narrow focus on getting women into non-executive roles, for example, seems to have inhibited the progression of women into executive roles. This suggests that any future diversity initiatives, whether focusing on gender, ethnicity or age, should consider the potential downsides right from the outset. Given the pressure on boards to better reflect the customers they serve and public pressure to address social issues such as climate change, should we expect greater racial and ethnic diversity on boards, and companies to be taking a stronger hand in addressing their carbon footprint in another 20 years’ time? The answer is undoubtedly ‘yes’.”

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Notes to Editors:

  1. ICSA: The Governance Institute is the professional body for governance. We have members in all sectors and are required by our Royal Charter to lead ‘effective governance and efficient administration of commerce, industry and public affairs’. With over 125 years’ experience, we work with regulators and policy makers to champion high standards of governance and provide qualifications, training and guidance. Website:
  2. London Business School’s Leadership Institute, launched in 2014, aims and aspire to raise the standard of best practice in global leadership by:
    • Driving leadership research into practice by actively translating findings into teaching and outreach activities that cause leaders to rethink and improve their practice of leadership
    • Creating a generation of leaders who have a global view, a strong sense of community and who lead from their heart, as well as their head
    • Being a globally recognised destination for leaders to access research, teaching, and practice on issues relating to leading and leadership Its mission is to have a profound impact on the world through supporting the generation and application of path-breaking research on issues related to leadership and leading in the 21st Century. At the Institute’s core is research across a spectrum of topics and disciplines, including successful leaders who embody our evidence-based teaching on leadership. More information on the Institute can be found here:
  3. Elisabeth Marx Associates is a leadership consultancy specialising in CEO succession planning and the development of global boards and teams. Based in London, its clients are listed companies, Private Equity Firms and large Family Businesses in the UK, the US and Continental Europe. A key expertise is the assessment and development of global leaders, with a consulting approach that is based on extensive research and publications. More information can be found on
  4. Methodology: the board composition of Britain’s Top 100 companies (FTSE 100, July 2017) was analysed as a follow-up review and comparison to ‘A View at the Top (Marx, 1998). Gender, age, nationality ethnicity, career profile, career background, international experience (defined as working or studying abroad for at least one year) and educational background were analysed.
  5. The full report can be accessed at 

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