Parenthood can breed better bosses, but let's leave Laura Wade-Gery to it

My Week

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Career breaks taken to have a family are one of the main reasons why too few women make it to the top of their profession. Blue-chip companies with a 50-50 intake at graduate level have yet to work out how to maintain that balance right through to the boardroom, although the statistics are improving.

So the case of Marks & Spencer’s Laura Wade-Gery is unique. She did not have motherhood to slow her rise to the top, via a long spell at Tesco. Instead, it is only at the age of 50 – when she is being talked of as the next chief executive of M&S – that she is becoming a mother. Because of its impact on the M&S leadership, the company had to disclose her impending four-month maternity leave this week.

Leave aside that her news had to be disclosed at all. It is a function of stock market rules that anything “material” must be documented for investors. In the past, at other companies, this has included non-corporate events such as divorce – because of a significant share sale by a boss to fund the split he would rather not publicise – or a leave of absence to deal with a medical condition that raises more questions than it answers.

After her moment on the front pages, Ms Wade-Gery should be left to get on with it. Like it or not, her maternity leave marks a new front in the battle for workplace equality, where behind every successful mother is some frantic juggling or a stay-at-home husband. However, it should not act as a green light for women to delay parenthood until the last moment, for fear of disappointment.

For some bosses, parenthood puts their hitherto fierce work ethic into perspective, but it also breeds confidence and balance. Ms Wade-Gery does not lack any of those attributes. There is no reason that motherhood won’t make her a better business leader on her return.

China casts a cloud over the rising sun

The consternation over what is happening in China has distracted from Japan’s woes. Not only is the economy there shrinking again, but unconvincing excuses are being rolled out. One of the reasons given this week for a 0.4 per cent contraction in GDP in the second quarter was, apparently, bad weather – which sounds like a real “leaves on the line” get-out.

The truth is that “Abenomics” has gone badly wrong. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s monetary experiment of devaluing the yen to kickstart sluggish growth initially sent business confidence soaring – although the feelgood factor was undercut by the mis-timed introduction of a higher sales tax.

Two years on, and Japan’s return to recession is a distinct possibility. The biggest problem is not that Mr Abe has been reluctant to follow through with market reforms; it is China’s decision to devalue the yuan. 

Time was when Japan’s biggest customer was the United States, but the decline in its electricals industry has long since seen it overtaken by China.

So China’s efforts to boost its own competitiveness leave Mr Abe with few options. Further monetary easing could work, but engaging in a currency war with your chief trading partner is not advisable.

At least the Chinese middle classes have developed a taste for Japanese delicacies. Ay what price Japan will sell them consignments of Wagyu beef in the future remains to be seen.

All in it together at Glencore?

Another outfit feeling the heat from China is Glencore, the commodities and trading giant. Ivan Glasenberg, the chief executive, has been relentlessly bullish about the recovery in China’s demand for metals. We are still waiting for the bounceback.

Another concern is the performance of Glencore’s trading arm, whose profitability, investors thought, could be relied on wherever prices stood in the unpredictable commodities world.

There is a theory that companies in which staff own a large chunk of shares – like Glencore – are ideally aligned with the City institutions that own the stock too. It is a theory that only goes so far.

It does not necessarily mean better stewardship. Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street investment bank, was one-quarter owned by employees at the point of collapse.

The difference comes with the get-in price. At Glencore, investors who bought the shares at flotation four years ago are counting mounting losses.

Meanwhile, its billionaire traders are forced to count back some of the huge paper gains made at precisely the same moment. The longer the rout goes on, all they are really losing is face.

Made for the job of boosting British skills

It is a measure of how little building work was going on six years ago that when the new Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan wanted to see some tunnelling in action, the only place he could go was halfway down the A3 to Portsmouth. There, he marvelled at a mile-long stretch being dug under a local beauty spot at Hindhead in Surrey and couldn’t help wondering if the UK should be thinking bigger.

Far more spades are in the ground now, not least at Crossrail itself, a £15bn east-west rail link across London that is due to open in 2018. The Government’s ambition to get building has hit a familiar problem: a shortage of skills.

So it is welcome that Mr Morgan, a veteran of Lucas Girling and BAE Systems, has been drafted in to formulate a skills strategy to boost apprentice numbers for the road and rail industry. The idea is that if the UK gets ahead of the curve, foreign suppliers will come calling – not only for our installation skills, but perhaps manufacturing too.