The chairman of a FTSE 100 company is said to have hissed at a newly recruited non-executive director recently that she only got the job because she was a woman, and there to fill the quota. If the remark, told to me by a headhunter friend, is true then it shows how deep the anger goes towards the Government-driven campaign to get at least a quarter of all non-executive director seats filled by women by 2015.
It's also an extremely cynical attitude because if the chairman's headhunter had done his or her job properly, the role would have gone to someone, whether it were a man or woman, of commensurate talent. For the notion that only "token" women will be chosen to fill these non-executive director roles is one of the sillier arguments which some men – and women – keep trotting out against the attempt to lift the number of female directors to a minimum of 25 per cent. And it's not the case.
In fact, Lord Davies, the ex-banker leading the campaign, said it was rubbish – actually he used a much ruder word – that there is a shortage in the supply of female talent. After publishing his annual "progress" check on women on boards yesterday, Lord Davies told me how over the past year or so he had met hundreds and hundreds of bright, talented women, most of whom were perfectly suitable to sit on FTSE boards. The problem was not one of supply, he said, but that companies, and headhunters, hadn't been creative enough or lateral enough about where to go fishing.
But they are starting to. Since Lord Davies made his recommendations a year ago, the number of female non-execs on FTSE 100 boards has gone up from 12.5 to 15.6 per cent – the biggest year-on-year jump in the past 20 years and more remarkable as it follows three years in which the numbers remained almost static.
What is encouraging is that Lord Davies' approach – that he will recommend compulsory quotas if companies don't act voluntarily – is working, for now. Nearly a third of all board appointments have been taken up by women – up from 13 per cent – and 47 women have been appointed to boards. Only 11 companies – mainly hard-core miners such as Glencore – remain male only and at least two of them are due to make a couple of female appointments in the next few months. Within the FTSE 250 the picture is not so bright but it is moving in the right direction. Women make up nearly 10 per cent of all directorships, up from 7.8 per cent.
A more pertinent question is how companies can do more to help women through to the executive level – the best route to corporate influence. It's not only FTSE companies that acknowledge that getting women through the pipeline is a problem; the gap is particularly acute in the country's big legal and accountancy firms where about half the workforce is female but only 10 per cent make it to partner level. Why so?
Luckily, Lord Davies has seen the elephant in the room: childcare. Encouraging young women in their prime to climb the career ladder is tricky as this is precisely when they are either having children or looking after young ones, and it's when the ladder is at its steepest.What is so bizarre is the way childcare is always seen as a woman's preserve. Surely men at work are fathers too? Why don't more take the approach of the Italian shoe tycoon Mario Moretti Polegato of Geox who once showed off his Geox nursery to me with as much pride as the shoe factory.
But Lord Davies reckons that the childcare problem will improve once we have more women at the top of companies. It's then that companies will start addressing these issues, whether through more flexible work arrangements or by creating more childcare facilities. I hope he's right because until now most senior women at work hardly dare to talk about such issues openly for fear of being seen as unprofessional or girly.
With more emphasis on a better work-life balance, there's a big cultural shift going on in the workplace but even so it's going to take years to change how woman can work more freely. It's another reason for tax breaks for childcare.
It's too early to tell whether Lord Davies' carrot-and-stick approach will work over the long term; it's been the height of fashion to hire women since his first report but whether this pace can be quickened without making quotas compulsory is a moot point. My own view is that we're wasting time and that fixed quotas will be the best stick of all. As Lord Davies himself asks, why is it that men don't want to take risks with women? They take risks all the time with men. It's a good question and we'll see the answer this time next year.
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