One of the world's leading executive headhunters is taking up the challenge to place women in positions of power and influence in the boardrooms of the UK's largest companies. Spearheaded by their newly appointed UK managing director, Miranda Pode, Egon Zehnder has vowed to unsettle the male-dominated executive positions of the UK's FTSE 100 companies by increasing five-fold the numbers of female bosses running them.
Currently there are just five women in such positions at blue-chip businesses, including Carolyn McCall of Easyjet, Véronique Laury of Kingfisher and Olivia Garfield of Severn Trent. Ms Pode called the figure "disappointingly low".
Egon Zehnder wants to boost this number by 2025 when it launches its "25 by 25" initiative next month. The Royal Mail chief Moya Greene, one of the five women holding executive positions, is expected to launch the initiative. The 25 by 25 move is more ambitious than the Government's plan to get the ratio of women in boardrooms to one in four women by next year, as it includes women in non-executive roles.
Women in power
The Business Secretary Vince Cable will tomorrow launch a "gold standard award" to honour recruitment firms who have done most to support more women appointments to FTSE 350 boards. A 2011 review, Women on Boards by Lord Davies, called for greater efforts from headhunters to get more women in positions of influence in British business. "It is clear that boards make better decisions where a range of voices, drawing on different life experiences, can be heard. That mix of voices must include women," the report concluded.
Although the percentage of women in board positions has risen to 22.6 per cent from 15.6 per cent in 2012, Ms Pode said that not enough progress had been made at the senior executive level, where women account for only 8.9 per cent of positions.
She said that she hoped the initiative would act as a catalyst for realising the potential of women whose "careers might follow different trajectories to those of their male counterparts" because they take career breaks. "We're capturing an initiative about making sure that you release the potential of all women in the workplace to rise to the senior positions [that] they're capable of," said Ms Pode, who previously held executive positions at Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury's.
"If there is a blocker to how [companies] view their female talent and don't recognise the talent when she's in front of them, that's going to limit their ability to release value."
Ms Pode added that women need to think of themselves as leaders: "It's about identifying the potential amongst women early on in their career, and helping them to identify with senior roles, see themselves in those positions."
Egon Zehnder UK's head of diversity, Karoline Vinsrygg, said: "In a society where we know that most of the role models are male, it can be more difficult for a woman to be realised for her potential," she said.
Part of the reason why so few women climb to the executive positions is often down to them taking time off for family commitments. Ms Vinsrygg said that companies should "have an understanding that at certain times of a woman's life, she may focus less on her career but she has not lost her ambition".
She added that many women find it difficult to return after a break, but that companies should "help them to integrate when they come back to work", adding that allowing more part-time work and different amounts of maternity leave would help more companies retain female employees.
Egon Zehnder has calculated that one in six new chief executive officers appointed over the next decade needs to be female in order to reach 25 females by 2025. With two-thirds of chief executive positions being filled by internal candidates, the firm is taking steps to prepare women to meet the ambitious target. These include identifying women who have leadership potential, helping their FTSE 100 clients to identify their high-talented female employees, launching a leadership development programme for potential chief executives and discussing the career ambitions and development plans with individual women.
Egon Zehnder will also carry out "360-degree referencing" of women by getting feedback from those around them, and conduct workshops on unconscious bias. "It's really about getting women together who are in a similar situation, to see how they can learn from each other and in some instances help each other," said Ms Vinsrygg.