We knew they were smart. But now the board has at last got the message

Women are finally storming the boardrooms of Britain's top 100 companies, new figures show. The number of female directors has soared, even among the most traditional of corporations
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The Independent Online

The boardroom is changing sex. Once excluded from the male-dominated ranks of senior management, women are finally taking their place at the top table, securing a record number of directorships with Britain's leading companies.

The boardroom is changing sex. Once excluded from the male-dominated ranks of senior management, women are finally taking their place at the top table, securing a record number of directorships with Britain's leading companies.

Even those firms noted for promoting the white Anglo-Saxon male are addressing the gender imbalance, trawling the talent pool rather than the golfing greens for female high-flyers.

The quiet revolution is illustrated by new figures showing that the number of female-held directorships in the country's top 100 companies has soared to 113, a rise of nearly two-thirds over the past five years. Since the start of this year alone, the number of top-flight firms with women on their boards has risen from 69 to 77, with some taking on more than one female director.

The analysis is based on research from the Centre for Developing Women Business Leaders, part of Cranfield School of Management, which publishes an annual list of blue-chip companies and their women directors. Recent appointments include those made by six companies with traditional reputations, including the mining company Rio Tinto and Imperial Tobacco. Both have welcomed women into the boardroom for the first time in their histories.

According to Peter Waine, co-founder of the headhunters Hanson Green, the once clear gender divide "is now very much blurred". Four out of the 11 board members the firm has recruited this year have been women. Hanson Green even has its own female-recruitment arm, headed by Ffion Hague, wife of the former Tory leader William.

Christine Cross, 54, one of the new wave of female appointments, was appointed as a non-executive director of the Next chain of clothes stores in March this year. "In general women are quite diligent, when they take up these posts," she said. "These are the sort of jobs where you can do as little or as much as you want. A lot of the women put in more time and effort."

Agnes Touraine, a mother of two, has recently been made a non-executive director of Cable & Wireless. Ms Touraine, 50, who commutes to meetings in the UK from Paris, said the attitude towards women was changing. "Some companies are only appointing women for publicity purposes, because it's a nice thing to have. But others, like Cable & Wireless are doing it because it's important and because it's adding value. I'm absolutely convinced we contribute, bringing our own management experience, like any other board member."

Dr Val Singh, from Cranfield, the lead researcher, said it was encouraging to see companies appointing women, especially to previously all-male boards, although it was still difficult for women to get to the very top of management and win prestigious chief executive jobs.

"As women directors, these new appointees have a unique opportunity to be role models for younger women who still perceive the boardroom as the old boys' club," she said. "The companies will benefit not only from the business contribution to the board that the female directors will make, but also indirectly, in that talented women as well as men are likely to see them as attractive employers."

Equality in the workplace is an area of huge concern for ministers. Last year, Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, criticised headhunters for presenting employers with male-only shortlists for directorships and said that companies should appoint more women to senior positions.

Superwomen

Kathleen O'Donovan, Director, O2

Appointed to the board of the communications firm in March. Aged 47, she is also chair of both the Audit Committee of the Court of the Bank of England and the pension fund of the engineering group Invensys. An economics graduate from University College London, she serves as deputy chairman and senior non-executive director of Great Portland Estates.

Vivienne Cox, Director, Rio Tinto

First woman to be appointed to the Rio Tinto board, a post she took up in February. The 45-year-old is also on the BP group's chief executive's committee. An Oxford chemistry graduate and the mother of two small children, she also has a degree in business administration from Insead, one of the world's top business schools and a hothouse for industry high-flyers. Her hobbies include gardening and sailing.

Agnes Touraine, Director, Cable & Wireless

The mother of two was appointed a non-executive director in January. The 50-year-old Frenchwoman began as a consultant with McKinsey & Co and was chairman and chief executive of Vivendi Universal Publishing prior to her appointment by C&W. A law graduate, she has a reputation as a fast-paced deal-maker. Likes Sunday afternoon family walks.

Martina King, Director, Capita

Capita Group has never had a woman on its board before. Ms King, who is 43, has a wealth of experience in the media sector, including seven years at Capital Radio.

Kate Nealon, Director, Cable & Wireless

Appointed to the C & W board in January, the 51-year-old is a non-executive director at HBOS, the UK's largest mortgage bank, and at Monitor, the regulator of the NHS foundation trusts.

Susan Murray, Director, Imperial Tobacco

The 47-year-old spent five years in the Littlewoods boardroom. Before this, Ms Murray was worldwide president and chief executive of the Pierre Smirnoff company.

Usha Prashar, Director, ITV

A politics graduate of Leeds University, Baroness Prashar was appointed in February. Aged 56 and married, she became a peer in 1999. She has chaired the Parole Board of England and Wales.

Tamara Ingram, Director, Sage

The 44-year-old became a Sage director in 2004. She is a senior executive with WPP, the advertising and media services group, and has an English degree from the University of East Anglia.

Christine Cross, Director, Next

Appointed in March by the high street chain. Now aged 54, she left Tesco in 2003 after a range of director roles. She holds a degree in food science and a diploma in management.

Dien de Boer-Kruyt, Director, Reed Elsevier

The 60-year-old studied at Harvard and then founded and managed a consultancy in the Netherlands. She is also a member of the board of SNV, an organisation working in development aid.

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