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James Ashton: Time to take risks to make sure women have a real presence in the boardroom

  • @mrjamesashton

Appointing a woman to a boardroom job used to be seen as a risk in the male-dominated business world. What a turnaround we have seen in the past 12 months. Now, failing to pick a woman when a vacancy arises is the risk that blue-chip chairmen are faced with.

The latest numbers from the Professional Boards Forum suggest that fewer are running that gauntlet. Its BoardWatch survey found that 27 per cent of appointments to the boards of FTSE 100 companies last year were women.

Political activity around this issue has lifted female representation at the top of Britain's biggest companies to its highest level, but let's not get carried away. Overall, that means men have ceded only 15 per cent of boardroom jobs to the fairer sex, compared with 12.5 per cent previously. And delving beneath the multinational firms of the FTSE 100 into the FTSE 250, whose members far better represent business in Britain, shows that even more work needs to be done to achieve parity.

At 15 per cent, firms are only part of the way to reaching a target set by Lord Davies of Abersoch in his government report last year. The former trade minister is pushing for 25 per cent female representation by 2015, but wants companies to get there withoutquotas being fixed or legislation being introduced.

It seems to be working. Several male-dominated strongholds in the FTSE 100 have been toppled. Only a handful of mining companies are still holding out, as well as Aggreko, the temporary power supplier.

The progressive firms have moved beyond simply appointing a single, token women. Several boards have surpassed the target already, such as the drinks giant Diageo, on whose board Lord Davies sits. In the process, many female directors have long since become admired purely for their ability, not for the struggle some say they must have gone through to get where they are. Dame Helen Alexander at Centrica, Mary Francis at Aviva and Val Gooding, chairman of the electronics distributor Premier Farnell, are safe pairs of hands, regardless of whether they help to tick a box or not.

Are the compliant companies better companies? Undoubtedly. But what shareholders want to know is, will it make them more effective performers? There is some evidence that it will, but it is tough to prove. All that should matter is that it doesn't demonstrably make them worse.

A year on from Lord Davies' report, we are at a fork in the road. Changing the mindset of chairmen is one thing. Encouraging real risk-taking is another. So far, the crusade has created more work for a limited pool of candidates.

Take last May's arrivals on the board of SABMiller, brewer of Grolsch and Peroni lager. Lesley Knox and Helen Weir are very experienced executives. Ms Knox has just relinquished the chairman's role at fund manager Alliance Trust. Ms Weir ran retail operations for Lloyds Banking Group and was finance director at B&Q owner Kingfisher. Both are extremely capable, but both have broken through the glass ceiling. The challenge is to groom the next generation of female directors.

It is a tough balancing act. Chairmen are being pushed to diversify, but woe betide any who leave the boardroom short of sufficient experience when the crunch comes.

Law, accountancy, human resources and consulting are areas from which women have prospered more widely. There is also a big pool of untapped talent in the charity sector and academia. One of the boldest appointments since Lord Davies began banging the drum was that of Jasmine Whitbread, the chief executive of Save the Children International, who joined the board of BT.

Every extra female non-executive gives hope to the female manager who is striving to break through into her firm's executive layer. These are the full-timers who are often lost to motherhood.

Bringing them into the corporate fold will be this campaign's real victory for British business.