Time to level the paying field

15-11-2004

Many companies are institutionally sexist

The under-representation of women in the top 100 boardrooms should be a source of embarrassment and shame to British business.

The facts are barely credible: Just 114 of 1,400 directorships of FTSE 100 companies are occupied by women. Of these, only 17 are full-time executive directors. One in three top companies has no women at all in the boardroom. Many more have just a single white female - making it hard to avoid conclusions about tokenism. It would be possible to go on with yet more alarming facts. But it is just too depressing.

Working on the basis that women do have useful business talent, there are two issues to be addressed.

The first is why so few female executive directors? The Institute of Directors reckons it's a "generational" thing, which will come good in the end. Lord Browne would disagree. The BP boss is clear that talent is stifled by the "Anglo-Saxon" nature and "golf club culture" of UK boardrooms.

In many companies women and men with equal educational achievements enter at the ground floor, but for some reason - and not just babies - the women never make it to the boardroom. There is only one conclusion: that regardless of laws demanding equal opportunities and HR department diversity drives, many companies are still - at their most senior levels - institutionally sexist.

The second key issue is why there are so few female non-executives. Companies and headhunters regularly trot out explanations about there being only a small pool of "suitable" women. Two years ago the dearth of female non-execs was taken up by Sir Derek Higgs in his review of boardroom practices. According to Sir Derek - a former boss of Warburgs and a non-exec in his own right - UK boardrooms were stuffed full of "white males nearing retirement age with previous plc experience".

The Higgs report also revealed that only 4% of non-execs had ever been formally interviewed. For women to progress that has to change and Sir Derek appointed Laura D'Andrea Tyson, Dean of the London Business School, to come up with a list of names from the non-commercial sector who might make good non-execs. Many were to be women.

Her work was a big disappointment. There was no list, just wishy-washy proposals about transparency and a call for an annual census on boardroom diversity. Needless to say, nothing has happened. A big opportunity was wasted - sadly, by a woman.

For the sake of fairness, it should be made clear that outside the top 100 companies, especially in retail, there are some women making big strides forward - and very serious money.

Take Belinda Earl, the former Debenhams boss who banked �3m when the store was taken over, and Burberry's Rose-Marie Bravo - rated so highly she was handed 1% of the firm in options.

Last night came news of another woman who might soon be in the money. The details of an incentive package for Kate Swann, installed to revive WH Smith , were released at 5.30pm. If successful, she could bank nearly �7m over three years.

The timing of the release of documents suggests just a hint of embarrassment over the extent of the potential rewards.

The Guardian

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