Exclusive band who have shattered the glass ceiling

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The Independent Online
The appointment of Marjorie Scardino as chief executive of Pearson was greeted as "very good news" by Liz Bargh, director of Opportunity 2000, the campaign to promote women in business.

Ms Scardino is part of an exclusive band. There are only a few other executive directors of listed British companies - among them Laura Ashley chief executive Ann Iverson, Clara Freeman of Marks & Spencer, Christine Gaskell of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, and Kathleen O'Donovan and Rosemary Thorne, finance directors respectively of J Sainsbury and the industrial conglomerate BTR. In the City there is a growing group of female executives, including Nicola Horlick of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and Carol Galley of Mercury Asset Management.

But though there is little evidence that women are finally breaking through the "glass ceiling" which stops them progressing to the very top of the career ladder, Opportunity 2000 claims that real progress is being made in management overall.

Ms Bargh points out that five years after starting with 61 member companies, Opportunity 2000 has signed up more than 300 organisations representing 25 per cent of the UK workforce.

In Opportunity 2000 companies 32 per cent of managers are female, compared with the 12.6 per cent in British industry overall, as identified by the Institute of Management. Moreover, the campaign claims that it is having some success in convincing organisations of the wisdom of introducing flexible "family-friendly" working policies. Companies realised that there was a strong business case for acting in this way.

With women accounting for 45 per cent of graduate entrants in member companies, it was a waste of money to let women leave soon after joining. Rank Xerox, the document company, claims to have saved about pounds 1m in training and development costs by adopting the sorts of approach recommended.

Nevertheless, there is still a view that among the biggest bars to women's promotion are the "boys' club" attitudes and the culture of long-hours prevalent in British industry.

Prue Leith, who founded a successful catering business and is a non-executive director of many companies, has attacked the "stupidity" of working long hours, which she said discriminated unfairly against women.

She believed that many male managers were playing a "stressful power game" by starting work at the crack of dawn and deliberately staying late in the office.

Earlier this year, another campaign, Parents at Work, sought to encourage people of both sexes to go home on time. Howard Davies, deputy governor of the Bank of England who is patron of the organisation, was one of those who supported a national day to promote the concept. But few organisations have seen any lasting effect.