"We tried really hard," says Mr Balding-Grey-Haired- Chairman, as he's asked to justify the appointment of another white, balding grey-haired chief executive to his firm, "but there just weren't suitably qualified women out there."
That's the claim Cranfield School of Management hopes to quash with the publication of its "100 Women to Watch" list. These highly qualified and experienced candidates span industries from banking to healthcare, engineering to aviation, and provide, Cranfield says, a wealth of "talent for chairmen and recruiters looking to breathe new life into the boards of the UK's leading companies".
It comes a telling time. Recent Cranfield research revealed that firms still show little interest in candidates who have worked in less traditional avenues – on charity boards or NHS trusts, for example – rather than big-name corporates.
As Professor Susan Vinnicombe, a Cranfield director, puts it: "We get very irritated when search companies tell us that there are not enough women available. The women who have made it on to our watch lists completely dispel that myth."
Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, is also taking action. This week he launched a review into how headhunters pick candidates for executive positions. Mr Cable wants Charlotte Sweeney, a former head of diversity at Nomura, to find out whether the executive search industry is sticking to the voluntary code of conduct agreed in 2011 as part of Lord Davies's review into women on boards.
That review set a target of ensuring a quarter of board members are female by 2015, initially at FTSE 100 firms. At first there was a flurry of female appointments, but progress has slowed. This spring Lord Davies reported that 17.3 per cent of FTSE 100 and 13.2 per cent of FTSE 250 board directors were women. But only 12 per cent of all the directors appointed in the two months to May were women, down from the 50 per cent rate seen a year ago, according to figures from the Professional Boards Forum.
The glass ceiling hasn't so much collapsed this year, as been left largely untroubled, and this week Equalities Minister Jo Swinson warned that moves to get more women on to leading company boards were "slowing to a worrying pace". Concerns is growing that too many companies will miss that 25 per cent target.
Appointments including Liv Garfield at Tesco and Diane de Saint Victor at Barclays mean the proportion of women on boards has inched up since Lord Davies's last progress update (now 18.7 per cent for the FTSE 100 and 14.8 per cent for the FTSE 250). But only three FTSE 100 chief executives are women: Carolyn McCall at EasyJet, Angela Ahrendts at Burberry and Imperial Tobacco's Alison Cooper.
And six of Britain's 100 biggest companies, including Antofagasta and Glencore Xstrata, still have exclusively male boards. Tony Hayward, interim chairman at Glencore, still has a full head of black locks. But the rest of the board is indeed made up of white,balding, grey-haired executives.
On the power list
1. Ann Cairns
In her first job, working on the rigs in the North Sea, Ann Cairns sported long blonde hair. "But I had that cut off very quickly," she admits. "I was definitely one of the lads." The maths graduate moved into banking, and spent 15 years at Citigroup, ultimately running its transaction banking. She joined MasterCard in 2011 and is now number two at the finance giant. "I get many more calls with offers from European boards, places like Holland, and France, because they have targets and quotas."
2. Natalie Ceeney
Natalie Ceeney has been tackling bank complaints and running a £200m-budget since 2010. The tweeting chief executive of the Financial Ombudsman Service began her career at the NHS, as a manager at Northwick Park Hospital. She then went on to a management role at Great Ormond Street Hospital, was later appointed Chief Executive of the National Archives. She has a first class degree from Newnham College, Cambridge.
3. Vivian Hunt
Harvard graduate Vivian Hunt, head of pharmaceuticals for Europe, the Middle East and Asia at McKinsey, has dual British-American citizenship; she was a healthcare project director in New York City, and volunteered in Senegal for the US Peace Corps. She also serves on the board of charities, including Action on Addiction.
4. Kate Lampard
When the Government cast about for someone to oversee its investigation into Sir Jimmy Savile, it was former barrister Kate Lampard who was picked to "ensure rigour and consistency". After a career in law, specialising in insolvency, company law and property, and roles chairing NHS organisations, she was also formerly deputy chair of the Financial Ombudsman Service. She is currently vice-chair of NHS South England.
5. Veronique Arnoldi-Dargue
Veronique Arnoldi-Dargue graduated with a master's in nuclear physics from the University of Paris, took on the predominantly male world of insurance, and focuses within that on technology. She joined Aviva in 2008 and then became chief technology officer at Aviva Investors. She transformed its systems after Norwich Union rebranded, and has done the same at Centrica, Prudential and Mars; last year she took a sabbatical which she is spending working as a life coach.
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