What do a fashion house (Burberry), an investment company (Alliance Trust) and a drinks multinational (Diageo) have in common? All three are London-based FTSE 100 companies that have female board members. But they’re the exception rather the rule among large-cap companies in the U.K. The number of FTSE 100 companies with female executive directors has fallen to 15 from 16 in the past year and the number of boards with multiple women directors is now 37, compared with 39 in 2008, according to the latest annual research from Cranfield School of Management in Bradford, England. Cranfield’s "2009 Female FTSE" report has also found that 113 women currently hold 131 FTSE 100 directorships compared with 834 men holding 947 directorships. What’s more, the overall number of U.K. companies with women on boards has declined, leaving one in four companies having exclusively male boards.

But how do U.K. boards compare with their counterparts in other countries? For the first time since the research began in 1999, Cranfield turned to outside sources to find the answer, enlisting the help of the Center for Corporate Diversity, a research company in Oslo focusing on the Nordic region, and Spain’s IE Business School. Why Spain and the Nordic countries? One reason is that, unlike the U.K., Spain and Norway passed laws in recent years requiring a quota of female executives as board members.

In an interview with Universia Knowledge at Wharton, Celia de Anca, director of IE Business School’s Center for Diversity in Global Management and a co-leader of the Spanish research team, discusses the role of government policies in boardroom diversity and what is holding aspiring female executives back from breaking the glass ceiling.

An edited extract of the conversation follows.

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: How would you describe the overall results of the report?

De Anca: Generally, the study reflects the slow progress that women have made to reach the boards of publicly traded companies. In some cases, regulations require compliance with a gender-equality quota — for example, in Norway, a law approved in 2002 and implemented in 2006 mandates that women make up 40% of the boards of listed companies and in Spain, the Equality Law of 2007 recommends that women hold 30% of the managerial positions of companies. However, even in countries with gender-equality legislation, the number of women in senior executive posts has not necessarily increased.

Two factors explain why the presence of women on boards has not improved more than they have. On the one hand, boards aren’t transparent about the processes they use to select new members and tend to maintain the [status quo]. On the other hand, women are not very interested in joining boards because of the difficulty of juggling … the responsibilities of being a board member with their obligations at home as a working parent.

According to a study by IE Business School, from 2006 (a year before Spain’s gender-equality law was passed) until 2008, the presence of women on the boards of the IBEX 35 (Madrid’s benchmark stock index) increased from 5% to 8%. Although this rate of progress is slow, it shows that the reform has had an impact.

In the United Kingdom, the percentage of women appointed to the boards of FTSE 100 companies has increased slightly, from 11.7% to 12.2% over the past 12 months, although the actual number of women has [declined slightly]. The percentage growth is attributed to the fact the number of board openings during this period declined.

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: What is the state of board appointments been evolving?

De Anca: The arrival of women on boards has taken place in three phases. During the first stage, companies filled vacant board seats by recruiting from professions such as academia and the like. Then, they recruited chief executives from other companies. Now, the great challenge is to see that the nominations flow internally from the ranks of senior executive up to the board.

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: The Cranfield study notes that the market capitalisation is larger for companies with newly appointed women on their boards than other companies, and that at women who join boards have more educational qualifications than the men they replaced. Given these findings, why aren’t other companies trying to recruit more women on to their boards? What are the main problems that women face when seeking executive-level promotions?

De Anca: There isn’t any single problem. Women face a number of barriers to get into senior management. Some are external, such as a lack of opportunity or visibility, and many are internal. Studies by the Center for Diversity at IE Business School reveal that women acknowledge internal barriers, including lack of self-esteem and motivation, as being the key causes that make it hard for them to advance along an executive career path. Motherhood also continues to be a big factor for women being promoted to executive posts.

The studies also show that a large portion of long-term corporate policies, such as those dealing with child care, are confined to female employees…. As long as a company is not flexible about extending child care policies and the like to both men and women, it will be hard to increase the percentage of women in executive posts. Women also have more problems than men when it comes to networking, because they aren’t able to use free time in the same way that men can to develop informal networks.

Universia-Knowledge at Wharton: Has the global economic crisis affected women more than men?

De Anca: The data do not suggest that is the case. That’s largely because women in the three countries studied occupy a higher portion of public administrative posts, which provide more job security during downturns. The difficulty that women face when it comes to accessing and moving up through private-sector companies makes them all the more reluctant to take their careers in that direction. That said, the crisis clearly has had a considerable impact on women in jobs that are vulnerable, such as part-time work and self-employment)….

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: Is there a country that sets the global standard in terms of integrating women onto boards? And which country has made the most progress over the past year?

De Anca: The Nordic countries, mainly Norway and Sweden, show the greatest degree of equality in every aspect, including the number of women holding senior posts. Over the last year, the countries that improved the most were Norway and Spain, mainly because of the equality laws in both countries, which provide companies there with a powerful reason for taking action.

Today, 100% of incorporated companies in Norway, known as ASA companies, have women on their boards, compared with 83% in 2004. In Spain, 55% of companies have at least one female board director, compared with 40% in 2006. The percentage of companies with multiple female directors has more than doubled, rising from 8.7% in 2006 to 19.2% in 2008.

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: The Cranfield study found that of the five banks in the FTSE 100, 9% of their board members are women, compared with 12% in 2008. Are there sectors that have a greater presence of women in management and on boards?

De Anca: Companies in services, including the financial sector, used to be the most favorable for women on boards. Construction and technology used to be among the least active. In the U.K. and Spain today, there are no real differences between the sectors. Over time, policies aimed at equality have leveled those differences.

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: What measures should be taken to improve gender-equality on boards and in executive management?

De Anca: The measures need to be different for different types of organizations — public versus private sector, etc. But governments have to guarantee equal opportunity and must help companies implement their equal opportunity policies.

Companies are including more measures that guarantee the flow of talent, both masculine and feminine, throughout their organizations. They do this through mentoring, coaching and career development programs…. These processes help women, who lack confidence professionally, to know what they can do in their company and assess how far they can get.

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: How does Spain compare with other countries?

De Anca: Of the countries analyzed in the report, Spain lags behind in the number of women on boards. Nevertheless, it is among the leading countries when it comes to progress. Over the past three years, the number of women on boards of IBEX 35 companies has grown from 5% to 8%. In the last three years, we’ve gone from having 86 women on board to116 women on boards.

Universia Knowledge at Wharton: What about the United States?

De Anca: The United States has taken the lead in recruiting more women to executive posts since the 1970s because of affirmative action laws for minorities and women. Beyond the law, companies in the U.S. have taken the initiative to develop policies to help avoid the flight of female talent due to the demands of juggling work-home commitments. In fact, most programs for women began at American multinationals and were then adapted by their international divisions. Today, American multinationals still lead the way. [This shows that] on its own, a law can’t change everything.