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Business Comment

At least some gender battles are won. Race is the elephant in the boardroom


Westminster Outlook Ruth Cairnie should be an excellent addition to the board of Rolls-Royce. She is one of the foremost strategists in the City, having plotted Royal Dutch Shell’s advances for three years as vice-president for planning. Then there is this theoretical physicist’s fierce intellect: at Cambridge University, Mrs Cairnie won the Mayhew Prize, awarded to the student “of the greatest merit” in applied mathematics. Finally, she brings breadth of experience: not just an oil executive, Mrs Cairnie serves on the boards of Associated British Foods and Keller Ground Engineering.

Yet, minutes after she was announced as Rolls’ new non-executive director at 7am yesterday, one commentator took a very different tack on the appointment: “Ruth Cairnie will join Helen Alexander on Rolls-Royce board #CorpGov #diversity”

This was followed by a link to the engine-maker’s 2011 annual report, where, sure enough, Dame Helen (to give the former Economist Group boss her proper title) was the sole woman alongside 15 identikit suited-and-booted men.

Even the most devoted page 3 enthusiast would acknowledge that this is a ridiculous imbalance, but that link also reveals what I believe to be a far, far greater issue: a sea of white faces.

Both the City of London and Westminster have been in a state of panic over their gender problems. Earlier this month, David Cameron carefully choreographed the promotions of a number of high-flying women MPs in his reshuffle – stage management that meant their gender overshadowed their abilities.

The City, meanwhile, is desperately trying to hit Lord Davies’s target of women representing 25 per cent of FTSE 100 board directors by next year.

The Business Secretary Vince Cable had hoped to tackle gender inequality by introducing all-female shortlists for boards – an ill-considered if well-meant idea that was declared illegal by the Equality and Human Rights Commission last week.

So there is still sexism in the corridors of power and the alleyways of the Square Mile, much of it institutionalised rather than explicit. Childcare is one of the obvious problems, though this really should not be pigeonholed as a single-  sex concern.

However, huge advances have and are being made.

According to the House of Commons library and BoardWatch, a forum that tracks the appointments of women to the top of corporate hierarchies, 21.6 per cent of FTSE 100 board members are women – against 12.5 per cent in 2011 and barely 5 per cent in 2000.

As of May, only 48 more board seats out of 1,117 must be held by women next year in order to hit Lord Davies’s target.

The curve on the graph showing the proportion of women on boards has steadily risen for 13 years now, which is more than a trend – it is an unstoppable charge towards gender equality in business.

Parliament, as ever, moves more slowly, with the UK only 15th for the ratio of women MPs out of the 28 European Union states, most of which do not ape our boast of being the mother of democracy.

However, while the pace is more of a crawl than a charge – and certainly not unstoppable – 2010 did see the highest-ever proportion and number of women elected to the House of Commons.

Gender inequality in business and politics dominates the headlines and debates as never before. As more women break into these exclusive clubs, there is naturally more attention focused on how ridiculous the discrimination was in the first place and a greater momentum towards reaching equality.

My fear is that this has totally overshadowed the UK’s acute race problem, which admittedly encompasses broader challenges of social inequality.

The 2011 census showed that 17.9 per cent of the population is non-white, against 4.2 per cent of MPs. That was a leap on 15 MPs in 2005, but, in absolute terms, it is absurdly, offensively unrepresentative.

A recent study by the headhunter Green Park found that only 10 out of 289 FTSE 100 chief executives, chairmen and finance directors were from ethnic minorities. This is particularly shocking when you consider that the international nature of these businesses means executives from China, India and Africa are far more likely to be suitable candidates for top roles than in solely UK-focused companies.

It should be recognised that too many female board appointments are non-executive. But we’re reaching the point when the hiring of a woman director need not be followed by a check of the board’s existing gender composition. This is now bordering on the patronising, as Mrs Cairnie’s glorious CV proves.

I write this with a complete bias.

I have a four-year-old daughter, Sophia, for whom if it ain’t pink, it ain’t worth wearing. I don’t worry that she will suffer sexism when she grows up, but that the world won’t have moved on sufficiently to be blind to her mixed race.

The war for gender equality is not over, but many of the big battles have been won.

It is time to pick another fight in Britain’s boardrooms and elected offices – one that is about the very soul of a country that so greatly benefits from its cultural and ethnic diversity.

It is time for race inequality to be addressed in both British business and politics.