Meet the women who lead the charge in our top businesses

Male directors of British companies still vastly outnumber female ones, but things could soon change thanks to the efforts of pioneers such as these. Kate Youde reports on gender imbalance in the boardroom

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The Independent Online

When Harriet Harman suggested the existence of Lehman Sisters – rather than Brothers – could have lessened the impact of the financial crisis, she succeeded in highlighting the lack of women in the country's top boardrooms.

The ensuing row prompted the Government to commission an independent review into women on boards from Lord Davies. In his report, published last year, he called for FTSE 100 companies to have 25 per cent female representation on their boards by 2015. Last week, the European Commission launched a consultation on proposals to impose EU-wide quotas to redress the gender imbalance.

The Female FTSE Report published this Tuesday by Cranfield School of Management is expected to confirm that women hold about 15 per cent of directorships on FTSE 100 boards. But the pace of change is increasing: the figure was 12.5 per cent a year ago, 12.2 per cent in 2009 and 12 per cent in 2008.

The authors also compiled a 100 Women to Watch supplement, including the 10 profiled here, of women they think should be considered for board positions. All are on executive committees of FTSE 350 companies or major financial institutions, or in senior executive roles at large charities. Ten people on the last list went on to secure FTSE 350 directorships.

Julia Bond Former managing director of Credit Suisse

When injury forced the classically trained dancer to change jobs, she embarked on a 27-year career in financial services. The Royal Academy of Dance trustee, who did not go to university, worked up the ladder from an administrative role at the Bank of America in 1983 to managing director of Credit Suisse in 1997. "I was extremely fortunate; I think I was in the right place at the right time and obviously I had the application and ability," says the vice president of City Women's Network, 52, who resigned from Credit Suisse three years ago. "The career path I took... would be very difficult to replicate nowadays, and rightly so. The complexity of the business world [is] so much greater; you need to come into it at a different level." She has a portfolio of public and not-for-profit board positions, including at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, but would like private-sector roles.

Valerie Dias Chief risk and compliance officer at Visa

Ms Dias credits Margaret Thatcher, in part, for her successful career as it was the former prime minister, as MP for Finchley, who urged the Home Office to let her, as a 20-year-old, into this country in 1980. Her family had moved to the UK for her father's job but she remained in India to finish university. "I took my parents to see The Iron Lady and [afterwards] my dad rummaged in a drawer and pulled out the letter she'd written to him about gaining me entry," says the 52-year-old, who has a grown-up son and lives with her husband, Ian, in Hertfordshire. She qualified as an accountant and worked for two publishers before joining Visa 19 years ago (she was promoted on her first day). She took on her current role six years ago and is a board member for the charities World Vision and HTI (Head Teachers and Industry).

Rebecca Worthington Finance director of Quintain

The 40-year-old joined the property company Quintain in 1998 and is overseeing a 10,000-home development at Greenwich Peninsula. She believes quotas give rise to "tokenism". The mother-of-two took three weeks off after giving birth to son Jake, now eight, and eight weeks with daughter Megan, five. Her husband, Paul, an entrepreneur working from their home in Wargrave, Berkshire, looks after the children. "Inevitably, whether you are a man or a woman, to proceed up the career ladder you do have to make some sacrifices along the way... My husband made the decision that he didn't want to be in formal employment so I was the obvious one to carry on working." She grew up in Solihull, near Birmingham, and studied at Nottingham University before qualifying as a chartered accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Ann Cairns President of international markets at MasterCard Worldwide

Ann Cairns is the daughter of a Newcastle shoemaker, and her high-flying career has since taken her, her schoolteacher husband, Jim, and her daughter, Sophie, 18, to live in the US and Holland. But the 55-year-old, now living in Surrey, has not always been on land: with British Gas she became the first woman qualified to go offshore on to oil and gas rigs. Prior to her role with MasterCard, in which she oversees 6,000 people in 210 countries, she held senior positions with Alvarez & Marsal, ABN-AMRO and Citigroup. She says she would like to see board roles advertised openly so that all those interested can apply. "It's a bit of a word-of-mouth profession in some respects, headhunting, and I wonder if that's the right way to recruit execs and non-execs," she says. "I would like it to be a more open process."

Lynne Berry Vice chair of the Canal & River Trust

Ms Berry, 59, said her inclusion on the list means it is finally being recognised that the skills of women who earn their spurs in the voluntary and public sectors are transferable. She is focused on breaking down "glass silos", working at CASS Business School to link the corporate and charity sectors. "I think there are some very experienced women, me included, who have public and voluntary sector experience but who tend not to be seen as having the usual experience for the corporate sector," she says. The former social worker, who was created OBE for her contribution to social care, lives with her husband, John, in London, and has three grandchildren. With a string of chief executive positions – including heading the Equal Opportunities Commission – under her belt, she is helping to oversee the transfer of British Waterways' assets to the new charity Canal & River Trust.

Natalie-Jane Macdonald Managing director of Bupa Health and Wellbeing

"My mother was a primary-school teacher, my dad worked in shipping," says the former doctor, who has worked for Bupa for 15 years (she realised during a sabbatical in Thailand that she did not want to return to medicine). "I am your typical example of aspirational, lower-middle-class parents. My mum came from the Outer Hebrides and her father was a stone mason, and my paternal grandfather worked at a torpedo range in Loch Long. They came to Glasgow and invested in their children." The 49-year-old, who lives with her husband, Johnnie, a self-employed management consultant, and their three children, in Oxfordshire, commutes to Bupa offices across the country. "My philosophy is if you do a good job, you get on. Bupa doesn't believe in quotas, and I agree with that."

Louise Smalley Group HR director at Whitbread

After growing up in Berkshire – her father was an electrician and her mother a dinner lady – Ms Smalley studied business at the then Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham and spent seven years in the oil industry before entering hospitality. The 44-year-old, who lives in Hertfordshire with husband Robert and children Daniel, nine, and Eleanor, 12, is also a trustee for People 1st, the sector skills council for hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism. She believes a trustee role is a "good stepping stone" for people wanting FTSE board positions. She says: "You learn to understand where you have got transferable skills and that you can add value." While the Women to Watch list "raises awareness of who's out there", she'd like to see a point where shortlists are so balanced that such supplements are no longer required.

Claire Ighodaro Board member at Lloyd's

In the 1970s when she wanted to go into civil engineering, after a childhood spent looking at bridges with her engineer father, she was told that companies would not train a woman. Still wanting a challenge, she began work in accounts for the Otis Elevator Company. When training was not offered, she spent her holidays studying chartered management accountancy. She later worked for BT and was the first female president of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. The mother of three and grandmother of two, from Weybridge, Surrey, mentors senior execs and is on the board of organisations including Lloyd's, the Open University and the British Council. Ms Ighodaro, 58, who has a CBE for services to business, is against quotas, because it implies a lack of able women. "I think we have the women ready, able and willing to do these jobs," she said.

Sheila King Group retail leasing director at Hammerson

This is the woman to thank for introducing fashion brands such as Hollister and Forever 21 to this country. Hammerson runs nine UK shopping centres – from Aberdeen to Southampton – and it is her job to ensure the right mix of retailers. "I love my job; it's like a hobby," says the businesswoman, 51, who lives in Mayfair, London. She joined Hammerson in 1994. "It's really fun if you like shopping, and retail's always changing." She always wanted to go into land management, having been influenced by her architect father while growing up in Derbyshire, and she studied the subject at Reading University. Ms King welcomed Judy Gibbons's appointment as a non-executive director last year. "Shopping is a very female thing, and you do need that element influencing development and investment in property."

Liv Garfield Chief executive of BT's Openreach

As a child, Liv Garfield asked her father, who ran a small engineering business, to change the subject when he talked shop at the dinner table. Now the 36-year-old, promoted last April to head the business responsible for managing the UK's telecoms infrastructure, instigates such conversations. She believes, because of the talk around gender division on boards, that much has been done recently to "demystify what has been seen as a dark art", with organisations running events explaining the selection process. "It's trying to find a company that you have 100 per cent chemistry with," she says. "It's not like you are signing up for a sponsored run, you are signing up for three to six years advising that company." The former Accenture management consultant and Cambridge University graduate, who joined BT in 2003, lives with her husband, Morgan, and sons Arthur, four, and Iestyn, two, in London.