After Véronique Laury, just what is the City’s problem with women?

More than half the UK population is female but she will become only the fifth FTSE 100 company female chief executive

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The Independent Online

Kingfisher, the owner of the DIY chain B&Q, yesterday revealed that Véronique Laury, the head of its Castorama business in France, will take over as chief executive from Sir Ian Cheshire in January, in the process becoming only the seventh blue-chip British company to have ever had a woman at its helm.

More than half the UK population is female but still only four FTSE 100 CEOs are women. Just one blue chip is chaired by a woman.

Why have so few women been considered? Are they too clever to choose 60-hour weeks and constant travelling, or is it childcare issues that have prevented them from reaching the top?

Alison Carnwath, the only female chairman of a FTSE 100 firm, last year said companies should allow women to take up to six years off to focus on raising their families before returning to work and firms would benefit by retaining the talent.

Other experts have pointed out that being British may have held some women back.

Of the seven women that previously or currently hold chief executive positions in the FTSE 100, four have been from America.

Moira Benigson, managing partner at headhunter MBS Group, says: “It is culturally easier for American woman to get on than British women because culturally Brits are more self-effacing and get their heads down and get on with the job, whereas Americans are taught to sell themselves from the moment they are born. They have an ‘I can do what you can do’ attitude. I also think the US is less discriminatory for women in business.”

Ruth Sacks, who runs Westminster Business School’s Women for the Board training programme and is currently hosting its second intake, with a third in January, agrees and says: “Discussing this with a multi-national group of women here today we have found that the fact the US is better at encouraging women into sport at a young age is a factor. Team sport is excellent preparation for competition and leadership. Americans are also taught to not be afraid of coming forward. This culture creates women who go for what they want. British women are more polite and more reserved. We have more managers than leaders in the UK.”

Dame Marjorie Scardino, the American-born boss of Financial Times owner Pearson, paved the way in Britain when she became chief executive in 1997. Then,  10 years later, American-born Cynthia Carroll took the top job at miner Anglo American. Later, when Burberry joined the FTSE 100 in 2009, its former American chief, Angela Ahrendts, became the third female in charge.

Phil Sheridan, managing director at financial recruitment consultancy Robert Half UK, argues that female business leaders are making headway with more than a fifth of FTSE 100 boards comprised of women compared with 12.5 per cent just three years ago.

He says: “The FTSE 100 CEO Club is comprised of a diverse pool of nationalities and the appointment of Véronique Laury will further enhance this. Expatriates are generally very career-driven, demonstrating intelligence, international perspectives and varied work experience, augmenting the strong pool of talent that Britain continues to produce at home.”

But when Ms Laury starts running Kingfisher later this year, women from the UK should not feel slighted.

Kate Walsh, a partner at executive search firm Ridgeway Partners who runs its retail and consumer business, says: “It is unsurprising that a French person has taken the reins at Kingfisher given how big its French business is now. This appointment doesn’t reflect poorly on British women. Just look at the current crop of chief executives in the FTSE 100. Nationality is not an issue.”

Last month’s Grant Thornton International Business Report found the number of world business leaders in favour of gender quotas has increased from 37 per cent in 2013 to 45 per cent in 2014.

It is clear women are missing out on some of the top jobs. Cranfield School of Management reveal the stats are even worse when looking across the FTSE 250 where just  17.5 per cent of the top jobs are held by women. 

How long will it be before hiring a female chief executive doesn’t make headlines just because she is a woman?

How does she do it? the women at the top of business

Veronique Laury, Kingfisher

Given the recent poor performance of its French business, the DIY giant’s appointment could raise eyebrows. But 49-year-old, who’s a mother of three, has worked in the DIY sector for 26 years, including as its UK commercial director  before moving back to France. Sir Ian Cheshire, who she’s worked with for 11 years, described her as a “real talent”.

Alison Cooper,  Imperial Tobacco

Ms Cooper, joined the tobacco giant as finance manager in 1999, taking the helm in 2010. An accountant by training and a mother of two, Ms Cooper is currently pulling off one of Imperial’s biggest deals, paying $7bn for some of America’s top cigarette brands which are being sold by the US tobacco groups Reynolds and Lorillard to seal their merger.

Carolyn McCall, EasyJet

Under Ms McCall the budget airline has been transformed. She took the helm in July 2010 and EasyJet flew into the FTSE 100 last year.  She brought in more pilots to improve punctuality, targeted more business travellers and has turned it into a £5.5bn market cap company. The 52-year old mother of three ran the Guardian Media Group before and just become a non-executive at Burberry.

Moya Greene Royal Mail

Ms Greene, a former Canadian civil servant, has been credited with turning the postie into a profitable outfit. Last year she agreed to repay £120,000 in expenses connected to a house move and hasn’t taken a pay increase since 2010. She has spoken about being a working mother and says “I had childcare from the time my kid was three months old, and she went to Harvard”.

Liv Garfield, Severn Trent

Ms Garfield, 39, is the youngest ever female chief executive of a FTSE 100 firm. Since taking over at the water company this year she has had to face a pay row and complaints about rising utility bills. The mother of two joined from Openreach - part of BT - where she spearheaded and oversaw the commercial roll-out of fibre broadband to two thirds of the country.