Male, pale & stale: Could more women on the board help Mothercare – and other ailing firms?

The retailer's critics say its management is out of touch. Now the PM has returned to the issue of females in boardrooms

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The Independent Online

It boasts that it is visited by four out of every five expectant mothers in the UK, takes £420m a year from its – 84 per cent female – customers and claims to be "the No 1 retailer for mums-to-be and parents alike". Yet the boardroom of the beleaguered baby brand Mothercare remains overwhelmingly dominated by men.

There is only one woman on the board at Mothercare, which last week appointed Lovefilm's chief executive – and new father – Simon Calver to lead a board whose average age is 58. Amanda Mackenzie, a non-executive director, says the firm has "every intention" for her not to be the only woman.

Mr Calver's appointment as chief executive at one of Britain's leading retailers for women highlights complaints that too many FTSE 100 boards are overwhelmingly "pale, male and stale". Maxine Benson, founder of the Everywoman business network, said: "Diversity is about profitability. It is not about gender, but about recognising that companies with women at the top outperform those without, because they are more innovative."

Such complaints were given extra relevance by a warning from David Cameron last week that Britain's economy will "fail" unless more women are promoted into boardrooms. He said business leaders had not made sufficient progress in ensuring women get top jobs and would consider "golden skirt quotas" as a last resort.

"The case is overwhelming that companies are run better if we have men and women alongside each other," Mr Cameron said, suggesting that the economy loses £40bn a year because of the lack of gender balance. "If we can't get there in other ways, I think we have to have quotas." The Government has called on firms to more then double the number of women in boardrooms by 2015.

Leading businesswomen question whether it is good sense to have decisions made overwhelmingly by men. Liz Field, the chief executive of the Financial Skills Network, said: "Considering the purchasing power of women, every organisation needs to look carefully at the makeup of its board. The more in tune you are with the marketplace, the better able you are to react to their needs."

Laura Tenison, the founder of JoJo Maman Bebe, a baby and child clothing retailer, said Mothercare's international growth has been impressive, but she feels "it has taken its eye off its core British market". She said: "Mothercare was an entrepreneurial business: I feel they have forgotten their core brand values."

Her business, with a £30m turnover, has five women on the board. "I think a lot of the skills needed to run a business are very similar to those that women deploy in the home anyway," she said. "If you can offer people the appearance of giving them 100 per cent of your attention when really half your mind is occupied with something else, then you have reached that level of success."

Ms Benson said: "Decisions should be reflective of customers: how can Mothercare possibly reflect the needs of customers if their board does not think like its customers? The new chief executive is a brand and multichannel expert, and they now have the opportunity to bring people in to reflect their customers, to bring in family-friendly policies that resonate with their customers."

Mothercare used to be a high street essential for new mums. While it is hugely successful overseas, it will close a third of its stores in the UK after £18.5m losses last year.

While insiders blame former management, many mothers feel the retailer has become out of touch. Mother-to-be Claire Vivyan, 30, in north-west London, said it seemed "old-fashioned and overpriced", while Emma Reid, 33, a solicitor living in Edinburgh and mother of three-year-old Rufus, said she remembers trying on maternity clothes, but found Mothercare shops "lacking in the personal touch". Both Liz Droznika, 32, mother of seven-month-old Olivia, and Jessica Doughty, 31, art director and mother of 10-month-old William, said they would go to John Lewis for advice, and would not consider asking staff at Mothercare. They described the stock as "overpriced and dated".

Firms with the most women on their boards outperform those with the fewest on sales by 42 per cent, according to research by Catalyst, which promotes women in business.

Last year, ministers accepted the Lord Davies report that recommended that by 2015 women should make up 25 per cent of all boards. Currently only 15 per cent of FTSE 100 directors are women, as are five of the 22 members of the Cabinet.