Women on a high in UK's blue-chip boardrooms

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The number of female company directors is increasing, but as Jonathan Owen discovers, we are still 'decades away' from equality

The traditional image of company directors – golf-playing, claret-swilling men in suits – is collapsing, according to Lord Davies, the man the Government assigned to the job of getting more women into boardrooms. His annual progress report, being published this week, will reveal that the representation of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies is at a record high – currently 18 per cent of directors are women, up from 12.5 per cent in 2011, when his "Women on Boards" report was published.

"The number of all-male boards has collapsed; we've got six left now in the FTSE 100. There were more than 20 before," Lord Davies said. "The myths that there wasn't a supply of women, that they didn't want to do it, well I think we've killed those." He believes the UK is "on track" to meet his report's target of women making up 25 per cent of board directors by 2015.

Outside FTSE 100 companies, however, the record is more chequered, as Lord Davies, former chair of the Standard Chartered Bank, admits. The "Female FTSE Report" published this week by Cranfield School of Management is also expected to highlight the growing proportion of women on company boards. Its list of "100 Women to Watch" ranges from Wendy Alexander, associate dean of London Business School, to nuclear physicist Veronique Arnoldi-Dargue of Aviva Investors.

Others include Dame Lynne Brindley of the British Library; Anne Bulford of the BBC; Diane Varrin Eshleman of Barclays Capital; and Hunada Nouss, formerly of the Department for Work and Pensions. They are part of a "substantial and ever growing talent pool of women" whom search consultancies and nomination committees "should be considering", says the report.

Those with a head for figures stand the best chance of getting on to a board, according to Sally Springbett, director of headhunting firm Sapphire Partners. "If you are a woman who has the ability to sit on and/or chair an audit committee, this is probably your moment, as that is a very sought-after attribute."

Ms Springbett, who contributed to the report, cites "confidence, determination and perseverance" as important qualities and says networking is "absolutely imperative". She added: "Canny and successful women will know the benefit of, and will have, sponsors – people who will sing their praises and put them forward."

But top companies remain "very male dominated" according to Jacey Graham, a visiting fellow at Cranfield. We are "decades" away from true equality and there needs to be a "cultural change" led from the top of these organisations, she said.

Equality is not about political correctness, but "simply good business sense" according to Maria Miller, Minister for Women and Equalities. Women are "crucial to driving economic growth" and "unlocking the potential of women in the workforce". "Priming the 'talent pipeline' will strengthen UK business and boost our economy," she said.

Although the Government is calling on companies to get more women on boards, it is opposed to European Union proposals to introduce mandatory quotas, which would force publicly listed companies to have women comprise 40 per cent of their boards by 2020.

Women at the top

Sheila King

Joined Hammerson in 1994 as division director of Group Retail Leasing. She is responsible for introducing fashion brands such as Hollister and Forever 21 to the UK. She is also the founder of restaurants such as Wagamama and The Gourmet Burger Kitchen. An adviser to the British Council of Shopping Centres, she is also a member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Mrs King, 51, who lives in west London, said: “Shopping is a very female thing, and you do need that element influencing development and investment in property.”

Vivian Hunt

Voted the third most influential black woman in Britain this year, Mrs Hunt, 45, leads McKinsey’s pharmaceuticals and medical products practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Before joining McKinsey and becoming director, she was a healthcare project director in New York. She studied sociology at Harvard and took an MBA at Harvard’s Graduate School of Business. She also serves on the board of several UK charities, including the Henry Smith Charity, and Action on Addiction.

Wendy Alexander

The Former Paisley North MSP and Scottish Labour Party leader was appointed the associate dean of London’s Business School and a member of the executive committee last year. Mrs Alexander, 50, said: “This role combines my long-standing interests in both business and education.” She previously worked at Booz & Co, as a senior strategy associate. She is also a non-executive on the Investment Advisory Board of Scottish Equity Partners.

Theodora Zemek

The global head of fixed income for AXA Investment Managers, Mrs Zemek, 57, has more than 30 years’ investing experience. She graduated with a BA and a PhD in history from Cambridge, and has a BA in French literature and philosophy from Yale. She has been a member of the board of AXA since March 2008.

Louise Smalley

Appointed group HR director at Whitbread. Mrs Smalley, 45, who studied business at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham, lives in Hertfordshire with her family. She has worked for Whitbread for more than 12 years. She was previously human resources director, a role she took over from Angie Risley, the last woman to hold an executive role on the Whitbread board, in 2007. Mrs Smalley is also a trustee for the skills council organisation People 1st.

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