Boost for women in boardroom as companies seek fresh skills

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More first-timers and more women are joining the upper ranks of Britain’s biggest companies, offering fresh evidence that the make-up of blue-chip boardrooms is changing for good.

Almost half – or 47 per cent – of first-time appointments to the FTSE 350 were female in 2012, compared to just 11 per cent in 2007. And another positive indication for the campaign for more diverse boards was that 54 per cent of those joining boards last year had experience of living or working abroad, compared to 43 per cent in 2007.

The findings from the latest in an annual survey by the recruitment group Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann also recorded a 7 per cent rise in the number of positions going to first-time appointees in 2012 compared to five years previously.

That came at the expense of executive experience: in 2007 almost half of first-time non-executive directors had executive experience, but in 2012 that fell to 29 per cent.

However the research, which covers 2012, contrasts with the latest figures on women on boards, which show that the drive to see more women on FTSE 100 boards stalled this year. Only 12 per cent of directors appointed in the two months to May were women, down from the 50 per cent rate seen a year ago, according to figures from the Professional Boards Forum.

Only four out of 34 new directors appointed in the period were female, including Liv Garfield at Tesco and Diane de Saint Victor at Barclays.

Since then fresh appointments have seen Susan Rice, managing director of Lloyds Banking Group in Scotland, made a director of the supermarket Sainsbury; Jo Harlow, vice-president of the mobile group Nokia, added to the non-executive team at the accountancy software firm Sage; and Jill McDonald, who runs the northern Europe division of the burger chain McDonald’s, appointed a director of InterContinental Hotels Group.

But some still believe that the target of achieving 25 cent female make-up of FTSE 100 boards by 2015, set two years ago in a government report by the former trade minister Lord Davies, could be tough to achieve.

The percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards is still 17.4 per cent – up from 12.5 per cent at the time of Lord Davies’ report, but it hasn’t moved since August last year.

Richard Emerton, a managing partner at Korn/Ferry, was however more upbeat. “Against a backdrop of five years of financial crisis, increased investor and media activism, regulatory intervention and fast-paced technological change, companies in 2012 have adapted by bringing fresh and new skills to their boards from a more diverse talent pool,” he said.

“What is striking is the extent to which additional diversity is coming at the expense of prior board experience. It is clearly important that the induction of this new talent on to boards, and the support and mentoring they receive, is carefully designed and managed. This will ensure that the opportunities afforded by such appointments are fully realised and the risks are mitigated.”

Class of 2012: a new breed of non-executive director

Nora Brownell, National Grid

Appointed June 2012

Chief executive and founding partner of ESPY Energy Solutions. Former commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Visiting scholar at Vermont Law School.

Priscilla Vacassin, Direct Line

Appointed September 2012

Until 2011, was human resources director of Prudential. Before that, she had the same role at Abbey National. Former Ministry of Defence non-executive director.

Deirdre Mahlan, Experian

Appointed September 2012

Chief financial officer of drinks giant Diageo. Joined the group when it acquired Seagram in 2002. Early career began at PricewaterhouseCoopers.