Board-level headhunters have been given a new code of conduct to help increase female representation on the FTSE 350 in both executive and non-executive director (NED) roles, it was announced this week. Is the influx of female appointments truly progressive, and is questioning them sexist?

An accurate representation of a company’s key values can be seen across their board. There are just two permanent female executives in the first five FTSE 100 companies and 16 NEDs. The technology industry does not fare any better. The top five hardware and technology firms (ARM holdings, CSR,, Laird and PACE) there are no permanent female board members and just three senior-level women workers between them. 

Equally, the software and computing leaders (Aveva, Computacenter, Fidessa, Microfocus, Sage) share a total of six NEDs, but all have no permanent female employees on the board. Famous female figureheads like Sage’s Inna Kuznetsova and Ruth Markland hold non-executive roles.

‘Quite often they like bringing up their children and all sorts of other things’

Back in 2011, mining group Glencore's former chairman Simon Murray told the Sunday Telegraph: "Women are quite as intelligent as men. They have a tendency not to be so involved quite often and they're not so ambitious in business as men because they've got better things to do. Quite often they like bringing up their children and all sorts of other things."

The same year the former trade minister Lord Mervyn Davies of Abersoch carried out an independent review, Women on Boards, which recommended that chairmen of FTSE 350 companies set goals for increasing the proportion of women in the boardrooms by September. He suggested the FTSE 100 aimed for female representation across 25 percent of company boards.

Last week, business secretary Vince Cable was finally able to congratulate Glencore for its progression as the last all-male board in the FTSE 100 to appoint a woman, Patrice Merrin, albeit in a non-executive role.

He said: “Glencore Xstrata’s appointment of Patrice Merrin to their board means that there remain no all-male boards in the UK’s top companies.”

The technology industry, FTSE 100 company or not, presents the problem acutely. Just last week, Facebook disclosed its diversity, or lack thereof, figures, following the likes of Google and Yahoo. Only 15 percent of the social media giant’s technology departments and 23 percent of senior managers are female. The company employs 6,818 people.

So is the injection of woman onto board level misrepresentative? Dangling carrots in front of recruitment firms appears to be working, but does it solve a historical, structural problem within the workplace?

‘The question in itself is such a shame for the lady who is appointed’

Document collaboration company Nitro is one technology company working to increase its female presence. A third of its employees are women, as are three of its senior management, COO Gina O’Reilly (pictured), vice-president of product, Mimi Hoang and financial controller Candice O’Meara.

O’Reilly tells ComputerworldUK: “I tend to think that sometimes over-emphasising the issue makes it worse, but it is still an issue and the Glencore news highlights that. The mining industry is very male dominated and is adding a female director, which is an awesome thing and something that should be applauded, just because there was pressure to do so?

"The question in itself is such a shame for the lady who is appointed - I’m sure she has the background and calibre to act as a director, even if in a non-executive capacity. These are the questions that are bandied about because of history and legacy.”

In the case of technology companies, the workforce is largely of a STEM background, which may point to why there are fewer women climbing the ranks. According to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), just 16 percent of all people working in an IT role in the UK in 2013 were women, falling from 17 percent in 2012.

Trina Watt, vice president of solutions marketing at ARM, which has two women on its executive board and two non-executive female directors, is passionate about getting women into the engineering field, and believes it begins with education.

She says: “I think in addition to having more visible role models, I think getting more girls to come into technical companies to get work experience is important. This allows them to see the wide range of jobs that a technical degree can open up. I had no idea that the jobs I ended up doing even existed when I was at school or university. I think we need to highlight engineering role models to girls at a younger age, not waiting to promote roles at 14/15 years-old but focusing girls in primary schools instead.”

Educating women in male-dominated industries like STEM is increasing thanks to government initiatives.

‘A challenging point in my personal life’

Over time these investments will see an organic growth of women across previously male-dominated industries, but there is a biological factor that is not being addressed.

O’Reily says: “I think the modern working world, even though it has evolved, was built around an environment for men. For most women irrespective of how far you get in your career, when you had a baby, that was it.

“I often wonder, could I be in this role and be the mother that I want to be – which is a very personal choice and differs for everyone - and I don’t know whether I could.”

Nitro, a San Francisco-based company, offers paid maternity leave even though businesses are not required to in the States. Nitro offers six months half pay or three months full, but O’Reilly said she was considering extending this.

In comparison, the UK mandates 39-week paid leave. Women receive 90 percent of their average weekly earnings for six weeks, followed by £138.18 per weekfor the next 33. Men can take one or two weeks’ paid leave or up to 26 weeks’ paid leave, but only if the mother or co-adopter returns to work.

“It is really important that we all work, at the company and government level, together to evolve the work environment so women in leadership can continue in these roles without having to make sacrifices,” says O’Reilly.

ARM's Watt pinpoints her career progression at "a challenging point in my personal life". She had a three-year-old and one-year-old twins when she moved up in the hardware company.

But she insists: "Since I have joined ARM I have not felt restricted in what I can achieve."

A recent study, ‘Women in IT Scorecard’, found that full-time, permanent female IT workers £120 less than male employees in 2013, a revelation which is at odds with the reports that increasing the number of women working in UK IT could generate an extra £2.6 billion a year for the economy, a recent report from UK domain name company Nominet found.

Now could be the time for radical changes to the way we work, Nitro's O’Reilly adds, like “looking at job sharing and asking, could you job share at a leadership level, even across different genders?”