Can corporate woman save the day for corporate man?

Shell plans to increase the number of senior women managers worldwide. Kathy Harvey asks whether this is the sign of a new move to recognise the potential of female talent... or a cynical attempt to portray a softer public image.

Ask most people to describe their idea of an oil industry employee and they are likely to conjure up a picture of a heavily built oil-rig worker or a white, male balding executive seated comfortably in a city office. Top-ranking female executives are thin on the ground in the traditionally male arena of oil exploration.

But if Shell, the Anglo-Dutch international oil company is to be believed, the overwhelmingly male culture of its organisation is set to change significantly over the next few years. The company now hopes to increase the number of women in its top 400 management positions from 4 to 20 per cent within the next five years - a decision that has grabbed the headlines and no doubt left many a male manager wondering why he is suddenly bad for the company image.

So why has Shell chosen to publicise its decision, and what difference will the changes make? Sarah Jones, a psychologist running MARL Consultants, advises many large corporate clients on employee profiles. "Women are generally perceived to be more discursive and supportive within management teams, though the truth is that many women who make it to the top find they have to imitate the more aggressive male tactics of management in order to survive." Plenty of Conservative ministers who served under Margaret Thatcher would testify to this theory. But Jones believes the nature of many businesses is forcing them to think seriously about employing more women in key positions.

"If you think of the way business is done these days, people talk a lot about relationship sales and partnerships. Margins are very tight and often there's not much to distinguish between products. So relationships become very important and it is assumed that women will be better when it comes to this area."

Evidence that this view is filtering down to the way large organisations recruit at the top comes from companies like Xerox. Five years ago, only 3 per cent of its sales force were female, and 5 per cent were senior managers. Now 40 per cent of its sales team are women and the figure for women managers has also risen to 25 per cent. Xerox UK director and general manager, Stephen Cronin, says the changing nature of the business gave the company the incentive to attract more senior women.

"The profile of our business began to change and many of the systems specialists we now need to recruit are women. More of the customers are also female. Several years ago we were operating in a fairly hard marketing environment but are now trying to bring in a softer and more comfortable style." The company has conducted its own internal research and says that kind of style is more prevalent among its female employees.

Xerox is an enthusiastic member of Opportunity 2000, which works towards redressing the gender balance in the workforce by providing better opportunities for women at all levels. Its recent survey of women at board level shows that more organisations are seeing the value of having a female presence. But although the figures have almost doubled since 1993, women still make up a tiny 5 per cent of board members across the country. Shell UK is a signed-up member of Opportunity 2000, and recently appointed its first woman board director. Liz Raynor is a human resources manager who joined the company straight after university. The company estimates that there are 11 other women in senior to middle management in the company. Shell's most senior woman operating at international level is Jyoti Munsiff, who, like Raynor, has more than 20 years' service within the Shell Group. Opportunity 2000 chairman, Lady Howe, is not surprised that Shell is now seeking to appoint far more senior women. "More firms are taking positive action to realise the benefits of diversity among their workforce, and we have now reached the stage where there is a critical mass of women available for top management posts. At the end of the day it is a hard-nosed realisation that it is commercially important to improve in this area."

Opportunity 2000 is about to launch a new way of monitoring how companies are performing in the area of equal opportunities, with a benchmarking system so firms can judge themselves against an accepted norm. It describes progress at the senior management level as "slow but steady".

Shell denies that its plans for redressing the gender imbalance are more to do with style than substance, but the row over the disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform and the criticism of its operations in Nigeria did huge damage to its public image. One of those called in to give advice on how Shell might transform its corporate culture was the PR supremo, Lord Saatchi, and cynics might conclude that the much-publicised drive to promote women is also part of an overall attempt to improve its public image.

Fellow PR professionals, however, claim matters are unlikely to be that simple. Jane Atkinson, who used to be the media adviser to Princess Diana and is now a senior consultant with Lowe Bell Communications, points out that if a policy is pursued simply for the sake of image it is likely to rebound. "It would be a shallow reason. But if you are genuinely promoting women because you want to increase the talent pool and recognise there are a lot of very able and competent women around that is a different matter."

She says that she would always advise clients to think of their business strategy first. "If it is part of a long-term business building exercise then it is certainly worth promoting." Organisations like Opportunity 2000 have long argued that there is a good business case for bringing more women into the upper echelons of the corporate world, so could it be that the male-dominated board rooms of Britain have finally got the message?

Before marvelling at how the scales have fallen from the eyes of corporate man perhaps it is worth remembering how long it took to reach this stage. Those feminists who hoped the male-dominated world of business might be made to see the moral case for change might like to ponder the reasons for the latest management theories about promoting diversity. Corporate woman may be riding to the rescue as we head towards the next Millennium, but is it only because corporate man ran out of alternatives?