London, UK
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Equality for women at work is decades away in Britain, according to a study released on Monday that found just six per cent of chief executives at leading companies are female, with representation in some sectors going backwards.

Men still dominate positions of power across politics, the law, media, sport and other key sectors, found the study by women's rights group the Fawcett Society, with women from ethnic minority backgrounds particularly under-represented.

Uk silhouettes

People are silhouetted at Canary Wharf business district in London, on 1st May, 2007. PICTURE: Reuters/Luke MacGregor 

"Despite much lip service about the importance of having women in top jobs, today's data shows we are still generations away from achieving anything close to equality," said chief executive Sam Smethers in a statement.

"We are wasting women's talent and skills."

Despite laws guaranteeing equal pay and rights, women remain a minority in senior positions at companies and in public life, while official data showed those in full-time work faced an average gender pay gap of 8.9 per cent last year.

Women make up just six per cent of CEOs among the leading FTSE 100 companies, less than a quarter of newspaper editors and just over a third of elected lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, the new index found.

They are also in a minority across a host of other senior roles including senior civil service members, high court judges and university vice-chancellors.

Women from ethnic minority backgrounds were even more under-represented. They are "simply missing" from senior roles in many areas, the report found.

Progress towards equality was often slow, it found, and representation had slipped backwards in some areas, including the senior civil service and leadership of sport governing bodies.

It called for action including quotas for women's representation at public bodies and boards of large corporate firms, and requirements for companies to publish action plans on recruiting more women and ethnic minorities.

The data suggested "nothing is changing" at many organisations, said Allyson Zimmermann from women's leadership non-profit Catalyst, though she said change was possible without bringing in quotas and regulation.

"Diversity is a success driver when it is done well," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It cannot be siloed off into a 'nice to have' and one hour at the annual conference - it has got to be embedded in the business."

A separate study last week found that highlighting women's achievements can make them more likely to want leadership roles.

Women were less likely to want to be a boss in male-dominated groups, found the research, published in the journal The Leadership Quarterly, but publicly acknowledging their abilities and achievements could encourage them to step up.