The issue of gender balance within UK boards has moved quickly up the business agenda following last year’s Davies Report. Lord Davies’ Women on Boards report outlined the benefits that a mixed board brings in terms of skills and different perspectives and recommended that a minimum of 25% of FTSE 100 board members should be female by 2015. Across Europe the topic is also rising in importance, with a growing feeling that quotas may soon be imposed.

How does the Life Sciences sector compare? To find out RSA commissioned the Women on Boards: A Life Sciences’ Perspective study of 417 Board Directors and Senior Executives (75% of whom were director level).

The good news is that our study found widespread agreement that balance and diversity make for better boards. Three fifths of those we surveyed stated that it is important that men and women are equally represented in the boardroom and that diversity is the key to creating the ideal senior management team. A clear majority (62%) of those surveyed recognised that women possess specific, vital skills and provide a different and valuable contribution.

So there’s widespread agreement that more balanced boards are good for companies in particular and the industry in general. What is holding diversity back? The survey highlighted three major barriers to change: ‘the different work-life choices facing women’, ‘the dominant male culture of the boardroom’ and ‘the number of qualified female executives in functions represented on the board’.

Most people didn’t see quotas as the way forward, with only 13% supporting their use by the European Union or the British government. However, there is a hidden warning in the research results. When we drilled down into the responses by gender, we found that support for quotas was greater amongst women. A third of women were ‘undecided’ on the issue, as illustrated by this anonymous contributor: ‘Quotas are not the best solution but they can be a solution if companies persistently fail to demonstrate a proportional representation of women in the senior positions.’ Clearly the threat of quotas is the wake-up call that companies need to heed before it is too late.

Asked what the industry could do to achieve a better balance in the boardroom, almost half highlighted factors such as more flexible working, proactive mentoring, greater transparency in recruiting and commitment and endorsement by business leadership as vital.


Our panel of senior executives identified three key areas where the Life Sciences industry could be doing better:


1.       Firstly, promote a more empathic business culture and working environment.


2.       Undertake appropriate and sustained learning and development.


3.       Coach female candidates to succeed in the boardroom.


Solving the gender imbalance involves the whole industry. Executive Search firms such as RSA must work harder to identify, nurture and promote senior female executive talent. Our respondents identified three key areas where Executive Search could provide greater support:


1.       Be pro-active about including women in the process.


2.       Scout harder for female talent.


3.       Promote the benefits of a mixed board.

What this study told us is that the entire industry recognises that increased female representation is a key element in remaining competitive. Women have the skills – now the industry needs to work to ensure that talented individuals have the opportunities they deserve within Life Sciences.

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