Power dressers

Can these five women save Laura Ashley? Mary Braid on the rise of the female executive
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We might be forgiven this week for thinking that for business women a bright new day has at last dawned. Carol Galley, vice chair of Mercury Asset Management, was yesterday strutting the corporate stage casting a formidible shadow over Rocco Forte's vain attempt to fight off Granada's takeover bid of his business empire.

As Ms Galley, 47, was casting the vote that finally decided one of the most brutal business battles in recent years, Laura Ashley, the demure and flowery women's clothing chain, was announcing that Kathy Self would be the sixth woman appointed to the new nine-strong committee of executive directors set up by the new female chief executive, Ann Iverson, who was brought in to turn the ailing company round. Laura Ashley now boasts the most female-dominated senior management in the country.

And all this after the appointments earlier this month of Clara Freeman and Christine Gaskell, 36, as the first female executive board members at Marks & Spencer and Rolls-Royce respectively.

These stories might lead us to assume that while the boardroom door might not have been thrown open it must now be ajar and the shiny glass ceiling marred by a few hairline cracks. The truth is that while the individual cases are inspiring, the overall story is rather less uplifting. And the exceptions singled out this month in the press are the first to point that out. Yesterday Patricia Manning, group marketing director for Laura Ashley and one of the company's new appointments, was trying hard to remember the names of all the new women directors. She went through the list in her head. She was sure she had missed someone out. But there was little sign of frustration. After all it was a novel - and surely pleasurable - experience for a woman used to sharing power only with men.

In 1992 Ms Manning was the only female member of the board at Mothercare. "Now there's a board that needed a female point of view," she remembers wryly. But that was before Ms Iverson arrived and shook the place up. "Let's count the men," says Ms Manning, going through the list again. With the minority - Andrew, Jim and Mike - out of the way, the task became easier.

And the task of turning Laura Ashley around will not be easy. The business which began life on Laura Ashley's kitchen table in 1953 and which by the Eighties had an annual turnover of pounds 100m, has lost its way. Its image and products are tired and dated. It is said to suffer from an overblown management structure, poor leadership and high overheads. Reinventing a company built on floral prints for the Nineties will take vision. That is the quality Ms Iverson is said to possess in buckets.

Ms Manning insists that Ms Iverson had not consciously set about creating a female-dominated board. Each post had been decided on its merits. It was only with the fifth senior female appointment that they sat down and discussed how the media would see the new team, which had the responsibility for the resusitation of Laura Ashley, as a female story.

But, Ms Manning concedes, Ms Iverson - who has worked with two of her new female directors previously - was probably more aware of good women and more open to the idea of promoting them than the average male executive. Ms Iverson, an American, had spent all but five of her 37 years in the retail trade the United States. Two of her female appointees - including Ms Manning - are American. The sad fact is that the new dominance of women in the upper echelons of the quintessentially English Laura Ashley may have more to do with the progress of American businesswomen than the advance of those at home. Ms Manning regards British industry's treatment of women as more backward that her that of her home country.

Statistics from the Institute of Management show that last year only 10.7 per cent of management positions were held by women and only 3 per cent of directors were female. Apart from Ms Freeman, newly arrived at M&S, there are just two female executive directors of FTSE100 companies. Neville Bembo, head of external policy at the institute, describes the situation as appalling from the point of view of discrimination against women and the fortunes of UK plc.

Ms Manning believes that Britain has lagged behind the US since she arrived here 17 years ago. "US retail management is more infiltrated by women. I don't think people here are as willing to give women a chance in the lower or middle management levels and, let us face it, if there are no chances there women won't come through."

To exclude good women, says Ms Manning, does not make good business sense. Under Ms Iverson, Mothercare was transformed. That, along with her long track record, is what got her the lucrative chief executive's job. At Mothercare she softened retail outlets to create a "cotton wool environment" and colours, furnishings and soft toys chosen to add what became known as the all-important "ooh ah" factor. Ms Iverson, who has children of her own, had started by putting herself in the position of the excited first-time mother. The way that products and brands were sold changed accordingly. "I couldn't say hand on heart that the men on the board didn't understand it, but they didn't seem to," says Ms Manning. Laura Ashley is obviously hoping that its senior women can weave a similar magic.

Christina Gaskell, who left Fisons to join the Rolls-Royce board, agrees that real picture of women in business in Britain is seen not in the exceptions but in the wasted talent and thwarted ambitions of women at middle management level. "There are an awful lot of women who are capable and talented but they are forced to make choices men do not have to make because of family commitments. There are plenty with the potential to go all the way to the board, but they do not get there."

Industry is doing little to make that happen. Neville Bembo cites research showing that women are voting with their feet. In 1993, women managers were twice as likely to resign as men and they vastly outnumber men in the setting up of new businesses. Mr Bembo sympathises. The culture of "presenteeism" - where you arrive in the office at 6am and leave at midnight to show your commitment - has little appeal for women.

Those who do stay in the corporate rat race tend to find themselves in areas not associated with power. Interestingly, Clara Freeman and Christine Gaskell came through personnel. Ms Gaskell, personnel director at Rolls- Royce, bridles at the suggestion that personnel is a kind of management ghetto for women. But in 1995, 37 per cent of female managers were in personnel, while only 1.8 per cent worked in manufacturing. Mr Bembo wishes women would be encouraged away from personnel and into the centres of power. "If the power was in personnel, men would already be there," he comments.

He sees Ms Freeman's appointment to the board of M&S as a sign of failure, not success. He says it is unbelievable that it took such an enlightened business so long to appoint a female.

The women who have made it make little of the pain along the way. But off the record one admits: "You have to be almost superhuman to make the top level. Once you are there you can afford the back up - a cleaner at home and a nanny for the kids. But on the way it is hard.

"You can see that women are mortified when they have to go at 6.30pm because they have to pick up their children. When they leave the men talk about them. Men are so selfish. These are not things they have to consider."

At Laura Ashley, Patricia Manning agrees that many will link the the success of the company's new female directors in the next two years with the worth of women in business generally. It is unfair - but nothing new. In a world dominated by men, the advance of many women could still depend on the endeavours of a few.