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Law for Business

Knowhow - guidance - precedents

06 SEP 2012

'Calling all Women - Please come in now'

Lord Davis is calling for Britain's listed Boards to have at least 25% female membership by 2015; the EC is wanting 40% female participation by 2020; yet recent reports show that the pace of change is too slow and these targets will not be met. Last month a study by Cranfield School of Management said that there had been a ‘significant move in the right direction' since the Davis report, with female directors on top Boards at a record 15% (up from 12% in recent years), but that falls a long way short of the recommendations.

So why, despite the surveys and report recommendations, the requirements of the UK Combined Code and the desire of many women to exert their influence at the highest level, Britain's listed Boards are still ‘male heavy'?

In a recent report on the subject, Dr Ruth Sealy, of Cranfield School of Management, puts the blame squarely on childcare, stating that childcare is seen as the major barrier preventing women from being appointed to board-level posts in Britain. She in turn places the fault at the feet of the Government, advocating that unless the Government tackles the cost of childcare and gives mothers proper incentives to get back to work, it may never reach its goal of 25% female board representation. This is because she believes the difficulties of maintaining a career whilst having children and the financial burden of childcare are both so great that many potential female directors drop out of the race. By the time the children have moved onto school and become more self sufficient, the woman has often missed her place on the career ladder with very little chance of catching up again and making it to Board level.

But is this the only perceived barrier?

There can be no doubt given the make up of professional graduates and educational attainment that women have the appropriate level of formal education these days. So it is more a question of discrimination, or possibly more likely a sub-conscious bias amongst those already in ‘the Club'? After all there are still currently 11 FTSE100 companies where the Board remains a male domain.

Lord Davis himself expressed concern about the ‘dinosaur' mentality shown by some Board Chairman. He commented during an interview with The Telegraph in March, that: ‘some [FTSE100 chairman] have really got it very quickly ... but one or two are still dinosaurs. I would encourage them to talk to their daughters about it. One or two of them just haven't got it. My plea to them is that they shouldn't be chairman.'

So it seems to be the old glass ceiling syndrome. Dr Sealy also points to some level of ‘bias' amongst some FTSE100 chairman against promoting women into executive roles. Most of the new female board roles created over the past year have been non-executive roles, suggesting (she says) that chairman felt there were not enough women out there to take up core roles.

So it may be childcare issues; it could be the bias or dinosaur views of current chairman and existing board members; or it might be ignorance of what women can bring to the party. But there are signs that shareholders are starting to question diversity as a key measure of board effectiveness and when the shareholders start to look more closely at Board composition, that may be the impetus, rather than Government targets, needed to open up more opportunities for women to bring their skills to the party for the benefit of our companies and Britain as a whole.

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