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Business Analysis & Features

The women who are breaking into the boardroom

Almost 100 females were made directors of top UK businesses last year. It's not equality – but it's definitely progress. Lucy Tobin reports

It was the week that finally provided some tangible evidence that the glass ceiling in Britain's boardrooms wasn't made of shatter-proof glass.

News from the Professional Boards Forum that almost 100 women were made directors of the UK's top businesses last year suggested that a Government-commissioned report by former trade minister Lord Davies had been taken seriously by the City. In February, he told corporate Britain that 25 per cent of their directors had to be women by 2015.

The hires – which included Stacey Cartwright, the finance director of Burberry who joined GlaxoSmithKline's board; Linda Gillespie Stuntz, who went to Shell, and Laura Cha, who joined HSBC – meant women made up 27 per cent of the total of FTSE 100 board appointments in 2011.

Despite the progress, that still put the overall number of FTSE 100 directors who are women at just 15 per cent – and that's an all-time high. The index of the country's biggest listed companies still only has four female bosses and there are only nine in the FTSE 250.

That's a long way off equality, or even Lord Davies' target, but at least the pace of change is accelerating. It wasn't until 1997 that a FTSE 100 company was finally led by a woman, with Marjorie Scardino taking the top job at Pearson. There was then an eight-year gap before a second female FTSE-100 boss was appointed: Dorothy Thompson at power generator Drax in 2005.

All the research suggests investors should encourage the trend. Lord Davies' report included the statistic that companies with more women on their boards out-perform their rivals with a 42 per cent higher return in sales, a 66 per cent higher return on invested capital and a 53 per cent higher return on equity.

At least it is no longer necessary for emale executives to take a long walk to the ladies every day because the only facilities were for men. That was the experience of Martine Verluyten, a non-executive director at Thomas Cook and 3i, when she rose to prominence in the City.

Here, she and two of corporate Britain's other prominent female board members explain what has changed – and what still has to happen.

Gay Huey Evans, 57

Started her career working on a trading floor at Paine Webber in New York. She went on to become head of governance at Citi's alternative investments unit in Europe and was the Financial Services Authority's director of capital markets. A previous vice-president of Barclays Capital, she's now a non-executive director at Aviva and The London Stock Exchange Group.

"Financial services firms are trying to redress the balance. Both LSE and Aviva have a significant proportion of women at senior management level, and on the board. But we do have to do more.

"Women operate differently, we're much more understated – and those skills are frequently underappreciated in financial services. It's getting better, though.

"We had no support then; no mentors, and many women would fall out of the workforce, I remember times when I'd sit and cry because there was no one to talk to. Now I speak to women's groups, and encourage anyone who feels that they've been passed over for promotion or that they're not being listened to to talk about it, whether to a formal mentor or a friend.

"We still need to encourage more chairmen to consider women for board positions, but it's not just about women – some of my colleagues who are from ethnic minorities have felt held back too. I do think, though, that people are recognising – particularly after the banking crisis – that balanced boards lead to better businesses. You need diverse ways of thinking."

Katherine Innes Ker, 49

Started out as media analyst before becoming a director at SBC Warburg. She later took on non-executive directorships at The Television Corporation and the housebuilder Taylor Woodrow. She's currently on the board of transport group Go-Ahead and developer St Modwen Properties.

"The main difference between when I joined my first public company board 12 years ago and now is that it's a given that when we search for a NED we expect to see women candidates on the list.

"I don't think it's discrimination. It's simply that until relatively recently it hasn't been fully recognised that there were plenty of capable, qualified women. Some headhunters tended to go to the usual types. They weren't all like that, though, and I joined my first board after my name was given to a headhunting firm.

"Women need to have confidence in their ability – there's nothing magic about it. Put yourself forward, go to headhunters, be aware that the process always takes quite a while and just don't give up."

Martine Verluyten, 60

Has held a string of finance director posts, including at technology groups Umicore and Mobistar. The Belgian woman was appointed a non-executive director at travel group Thomas Cook last May and at private equity house 3i in December.

"Boards are becoming more female because women like me, who have had an interesting career, are ready to do something wider. I've never felt discriminated against, and I think that's partly because I don't walk around with a chip on my shoulder saying 'poor me, I'm a woman'.

"At the start of my career, I was only the second woman in audit at KPMG. Later in my career, I had to go to another floor to use the toilet because there wasn't a woman's loo on the floor of the senior executives.

"Thomas Cook has been through a rough time recently, but that's when the board becomes most important – you can contribute more when helping a company get through the worst times. Usually firms have the competency to solve a problem, but don't listen to the right people. That's one of the strengths women provide – we're more apt to listen, and not to stick to preconceived ideas.

"In my experience, British boards are more open to women than those on the Continent."