It's time for Diversity 2.0 - more women from different backgrounds


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The Independent Online

There are many promises that David Cameron will insist he has kept during the election campaign.

And one policy that has been an unequivocal success is the drive to get more women into the boardroom.

I must admit to being very sceptical at the time when the Prime Minister instructed Lord Davies, the former trade minister, to examine the issue. In summer 2010, the deficit was out of control and the economy was on its knees. Rebooting Britain’s boards seemed less important.

I was wrong. Now that FTSE 100 companies are closing in on the target of  25 per cent female representation, the benefits are clear – not just diversity of thought in top businesses, but role models for women lower down the organisation, and the minds of male and pale chairmen focused on improving the pipeline of talent in their organisations.

So it was interesting to look back at the original Davies report from early 2011 – on the suggestion of Gillian Karran-Cumberlege at the search firm Fidelio Partners – and note that the job is only half done. Lord Davies referred to “two different populations of women” who should be considered for board appointments. The first, those who are already in the corporate sector, we have a-plenty. Recruiting from the second set – “women outside the corporate mainstream, including entrepreneurs, academics, civil servants and senior women with professional service backgrounds” – is still a work in progress.

Female finance directors or controllers have been in heavy demand for board work – for example, Stacey Cartwright, the former beancounter at fashion house Burberry who now runs Harvey Nichols and sits on the board of GlaxoSmithKline and the drug giant’s audit and finance committees. Those from other disciplines have been slower to get the call.

When the Davies push began, the economic climate meant risk-taking wasn’t popular. Shareholders still won’t welcome just anyone being plonked into a board seat, but 2015 is time for Diversity 2.0.

The supermarkets are marching out of town

 In my home town of Huddersfield, the new Tesco has been a long time coming. Now it won’t come at all, after chief executive Dave Lewis canned 49 planned new outlets on top of the 43 stores that will close.

The land that Tesco bought to build on includes the town’s old sports centre and two tower blocks, named after local sporting heroes, that have seen better days. Its deal with the council was to help fund a new sports facility, which is due to open in a few months.

The new Tesco attracted plenty of opposition during the planning stages, including from the local MP Barry Sheerman. Now those critics wonder what Mr Lewis will do with a piece of land with planning permission attached. Sell it to Aldi maybe, or Lidl?

Supermarkets have been catalysts for civic investment through their years of expansion. Huddersfield might not otherwise be getting a new sports centre. But Britain became overshopped, especially as the e-commerce revolution took hold. It was only a matter of time before the grocers followed non-food chains such as Argos in shrinking their estate.

Not only is the space race over, it has been slammed into reverse. The communities that railed against the Tescopoly rolling into town will have to adjust to a new world where it just as easily rolls out again.

Political chaos can only damage the economy 

 I sat next to the economist Vicky Pryce on a panel to launch the quarterly economic survey from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) the other day. She has been touring the TV studios, opining on the fate of her native Greece should it vote the left-wing, anti-austerity Syriza party into power in the election on 25 January. Her view is that the Greeks are inherently conservative and don’t want to leave Europe or the euro, and that Syriza is likely to fail. Even if that is the outcome, the markets will carry on wobbling until the moment we get there.

What is curious is just how much political risk is infecting business decisions at the moment. It showed up in the LCCI’s Capital 500 study – a useful indicator for the rest of the country as the capital continues to outpace the wider UK economy. There seems to be a cash-under-the-mattress mentality – company cashflows are up, but businesses are less likely to invest in new plant and machinery or train up staff than a few months ago.

The biggest worry I sensed was around recruitment. Not only are fewer companies looking to take on new staff, but more of those that have tried to hire are struggling to find people with sufficient skills. The weak wage growth figures mask hotspots in professional sectors such as construction and cyber-security, where 10 per cent pay rises are not uncommon.

But if London, closing in on a record population high of 8.6 million, can’t source the skills it needs, what hope for the rest of the country? No wonder immigration will dominate this election campaign. Neither of the main parties will claw back ground from Ukip if they continue dancing around the issue. They should be mindful of the numerous examples across Europe, Greece included, of the economic cost of political chaos.