Putting women on the board

While some FTSE 100 companies have already beaten the target to have one in four female directors by 2015, overall change at the top is still slow

Will they or won't they make it? That's the question hovering over Britain's corporate boards, a year after the former trade minister Lord Davies first set out a target to have women represent one in four seats in the FTSE 100 boardrooms by 2015.

His report, Women on Boards, certainly had an impact. The past 12 months have seen 37 women appointed to non-executive directorships (NEDs) of Britain's top 100 companies, including Sara Weller, the former Argos boss who joined Lloyds Banking Group's board, and Stacey Cartwright, Burberry's finance director who now sits on GlaxoSmithKline's board.

In all, 15 companies have reached Lord Davies' target three years early, and a third of FTSE 100 firms already have 20 per cent or more women.

However, the rate of change is too slow to see women occupying one in four seats on boards by 2015, according to research from recruiter Norman Broadbent. It expects Britain to hit that target in 2017, two years late.

Mentoring schemes have sprung up in an attempt to redress the balance. The Glass Ladder programme, which is run by the headhunter Bird & Co, has so far linked 32 female prospective board members with current FTSE 100 non-execs, and six graduates have been appointed to their first NED position.

Here, some of Britain's newest NEDs look back on their first few months in the boardroom.

Margherita Della Valle

Group finance director, Vodafone

Ms Della Valle joined Centrica's board in January last year. "Centrica has a very high-profile board [including CBI president Sir Roger Carr] so I was a little anxious about my contribution at the start. But I found it very inclusive, which helped me overcome any shyness.

"I have really enjoyed my first year as a non-executive director; it's exceeded my expectations. There has been a lot of cross-fertilisation between what I do in my day job at Vodafone, where I often prepare material for the board and sometimes present to the audit committee, and at Centrica, when I'm on the other side of the fence.

"It's helped me to understand what board members want to see and why they ask certain questions.

"I think the pace of change isaccelerating in boardrooms –more gender equality is just aquestion of time. The women on boards issue is so high profile at the moment that it's giving the right amount of pressure to boards. But we shouldn't forget about it now or in two years' time – if people stop talking about it, the pressure will go away.

"My advice to other women who want a non-executive position is to put yourself forward and participate in the many initiatives that now exist around women and boards,involving mentoring and networking forums. In my own career I've been very lucky and never faceddiscrimination, but that's not everyone's experience.

"Take every opportunity and don't be concerned about the impact it has on the day job. It creates value on both sides and companies should encourage these types of experience."

Liz Hewitt

Trustee, Cancer Research UK

Ms Hewitt, 55, was director of corporate affairs at Smith & Nephew and is now a trustee of Cancer Research UK. She wasappointed as a non-executive director on theboard of FTSE 250-listed sterilemedical supplier Synergy Health last September.

"I don't think I've ever experienced discrimination in my career, but I've experienced selection – missing out on positions because I haven't had the appropriate experience, and that's something a lot of women have faced which is now changing.

"Back when I was a student atUniversity College London in 1974, the male-to-female ratio of newundergraduates was 10 to one.

"Then when I joined the London office of Arthur Andersen in 1977,the graduate intake was 106, of which only seven were women. Now many more women are coming through corporate life and have gained theappropriate experience for roles in the boardroom.

"There are lots of ways to gainexperience for board positions.

"For many years I took oncharitable board work alongsidemy main job, and was a NED for an NHS trust.

"It was ideal experience forworking at Synergy. Charity andNGO boards have many of the same issues as company boards, with the same corporate governance, remuneration and audit issues, and similar financial issues over cost control, cash flow and value for money.

"For both the company board and the new women involved, there's a genuine business benefit from diversity. The vast majority of purchasing decisions in consumer companies, for example, are made by women, so it therefore makes eminent sense for them to have women on the board.

"It's just as important as havingthe views of people from different nationalities. It helps to reflect the marketplace."

Helen Owers

Chief development officer, Thomson Reuters Professional

Ms Owers, 48, was appointed a non-executive director of PZ Cussons on 1 January. "The idea that I should take on a non-executive role came from Thomson Reuters as part of their senior executive development plan. They believe that working on other boards helps what you bring to the company you're working in. So I joined the Glass Ladder mentorship programme, and worked with Kathleen O'Donovon [a non-exec at Prudential, Trinity Mirror and ARM Holdings] for a year. We worked on everything from corporate governance to getting your CV in shape for NED roles, and networking with the right headhunters.

"I also worked with David Tyler, chairman of Sainsbury's and Logica, as part of The FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme, which puts women together with chairmen and women to help them prepare for non-exec roles.

"He taught me that you have to be very creative when applying for roles – my industry, for example, doesn't fit with the fast-moving consumer goods that PZ Cussons works on, but most of my work is with emerging markets and that's where a lot of their business is.

"Also, where applying for an executive job involves thinking about what you've done in the past, for an NED it's more about the skills you can deliver to the board and the company. I found it quite a different way of thinking.

"My boardroom preparation took up a lot of evenings and weekends, and obviously I had my job too as well as my family – I have one daughter. Luckily I have a natural ability to juggle multiple things. It is harder [as a woman] but I never waste time. I never watch movies whilst flying abroad for business, but work on my laptop and iPad.

"I found my first board meeting incredibly insightful. I realised the quality of direction a board can give a company – it was very collegiate, but also challenging – people really did speak up.

"The Davies report definitely had an impact on pushing more women on to the candidate roster for NED roles. I think that's hugely important. Companies want boards to challenge them, and having people with different backgrounds really helps with that."

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