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Breaking Boundaries: Addressing boardroom equality

31 March 2021

2 minutes to read

Breaking Boundaries: Addressing boardroom equality

Professor Ruth Sealy has led reviews into the diversity of leadership groups of large public and private organisations across the UK.

Lack of diversity in leadership roles is a widespread issue across public and private sector UK organisations. Research shows that non-diverse boards under perform in comparison to diverse boards. However, organisations often lack the data, policies and processes needed to increase board level diversity.

Professor Sealy focuses on increasing the proportion of women in senior leadership and boardroom positions.

In the past, organisations assumed there was a supply problem, and focused on minor solutions such as more training for women. Sealy’s research data reframes the issue as one of demand, revealing systemic issues requiring multiple stakeholders and mechanisms to drive change in the diversity agenda.

In 2016, Sealy was the only academic invited to join an NHS Advisory Board to advise specifically on how the they

should approach improving boardroom diversity after they announced a target of gender balance across all NHS boards of directors by 2020.

Recommendations included regular reporting and data collection throughout the study as important for trend recognition. Professor Ruth Sealy also led the initial data collection, sourcing data on over 6,000 board directors on all 452 NHS boards in England.

Analysis of the data established baselines, on service types, region and board roles, and report findings and key recommendations were launched in March 2017.

The final report was released in 2020, entitled ‘Action for Equality: The Time is Now’.

It found that while progress has been made to increase the proportion of women in leadership roles across the health service, there was more to do to meet the NHS’s target for 50:50 representation.

Fewer than half (44.7%) of executive and non-executive roles across NHS trusts are held by women and there was significant variation in representation across individual organisations, ranging from as low as 15.4% all the way up to 77.8%.

Researchers in Exeter also evaluated board diversity through board evaluators in FTSE 350 companies in 2017 and investigated the reporting of diversity figures in the same companies in 2018 – 19.

Findings highlighted the importance of the Chair’s role in avoiding ‘tokenistic’ dynamics, spelling out the difference a diverse board makes including contributing to effectiveness through better decision-making. The report recommended the changing the UK’s Corporate Code of Governance to include company disclosure requirements on the type of board evaluation conducted and the company’s subsequent actions following evaluation.

Through influencing improvements in the governance requirements around board evaluations and diversity reporting in the private sector, and at the level of both national policy and workplace practice across the NHS, Professor Sealy and the team at the University of Exeter have impacted the understanding of, and practices to improve boardroom diversity.


Breaking boundaries provides a bitesize look into the variety of leading research that has, and still is changing the world from the University of Exeter.

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Prof Sealy talks about her research of Women in Leadership and particularly on boards.


Professor Ruth Sealy


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