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?

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
Life and Style
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

    £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice