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
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

SThree: HR Benefits Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum + pro rata: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager / Financial Services

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established in 1999, a highly r...

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?