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.