Margareta Pagano: It's time to bring in the quotas; 20 years on, it's still a man's world

When Kathleen O'Donovan became the first female finance director of a FTSE 100 company nearly 20 years ago, her new job made the front pages.

It's difficult to imagine now, but her elevation to the board of BTR, then one of the UK's biggest industrial conglomerates, was greeted with as much awe as man's first step on the moon, certainly with as much fanfare.

It wasn't just that O'Donovan was a woman, but she was young, at 33, and attractive – not even a blue stocking; all rather shocking to the "male, pale and stale" brigade. O'Donovan – an accountant – was utterly bemused by all the fuss, and I still remember her words when she told me about her new role. She dismissed the hullabaloo with this putdown, claiming there would only be "equality when there are as many mediocre women working at the top in the business world as there are mediocre men". Ouch – you can see why BTR's wily Sir Owen Green wanted her on his board.

Fast forward two decades and nothing much has changed – there still aren't enough talented, let alone mediocre, women climbing the corporate tree. What's more, the debate about how to get them higher still rages. The numbers have hardly budged for a decade; there are still only 12 per cent of female directors on FTSE-100 boards, and only a handful of female finance directors, one of the main routes to the chief executive's office. However, what is encouraging is that there are far more women serving as directors of small companies – those with less than 500 employees. As our new research shows, around 25 per cent of all directors of such small businesses are women. While this is still low, it demonstrates yet again that women are choosing to make their own way as entrepreneurs or running small businesses – whether they do so because it's easier than climbing the corporate ladder or because they prefer to strike out alone is a moot point.

What has changed since O'Donovan's first step is that a growing number of heavyweight industrialists are championing board diversity because they understand that having more women around is good for business. That, at least, is some sort of enlightenment. But even Lord Davies of Abersoch, who heads up the Government's review to get more women on boards, is not sure how to solve the puzzle of why so few make it, even though his research shows there is no lack of talented supply. In an article last week, Lord Davies gave us a few clues to what he might recommend to help change the selection and recruitment process for women executives when he reports in February.

Among his suggestions are a best-practice code for head-hunters, setting up a group of 40 mentors, and even a women's academy to tutor wannabe top executives. These ideas are laudable and would doubtless help many women, but they are not enough to make radical change. You only have to see what a ripple effect one serious job can have – O'Donovan is now a non-executive of ARM Holdings and Great Portland, and has sat on many big company boards.

What is interesting, though, is that Lord Davies hasn't ruled out quotas – yet. He's right not to, and I hope he is persuaded that even a small quota would be a positive force. Now that, together with tax relief for child-care, would be a giant leap for womankind.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Guru Careers: Management Accountant

£27 - 35k + Bonus + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Management Accountant is needed ...

Guru Careers: Project Manager / Business Analyst

£40-50k + Benefits.: Guru Careers: A Project Manager / Business Analyst is nee...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'