The appointment this week of Clara Freeman as Marks & Spencer's first female executive board member elevates her to an exclusive club. According to surveys, there are just two other female executive directors of FTSE- 100 companies, Kathleen O'Donovan and Rosemary Thorne, finance directors respectively of J Sainsbury and the industrial conglomerate BTR.
Although news of the promotion of Mrs Freeman - a 42-year-old mother of two who was formerly head of personnel at M&S - came at the same time as Rolls-Royce Motor Cars' announcement that it was appointing its first woman executive board member - Christine Gaskell, from Fisons - 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.
The view that one of the biggest bars to women's promotion are the "boys' club" attitudes and the long-hours culture prevalent in British industry was thrown into fresh relief yesterday by the top businesswoman Prue Leith, who attacked the "stupidity" of working long hours, which she said discriminated unfairly against women. Many male managers were playing a "stressful power game" by starting work at the crack of dawn and staying late in the office, she complained.
Ms Leith, founder of a successful catering company and a non-executive director of several companies, said she had suggested at a recent board meeting that executives should set an example by leaving work at 5pm to spend time with their families.
In 1994 the Institute of Management (IoM) produced a shock report showing that the proportion of women managers in British industry had dropped after 21 years of successive rises. The long-term trend was resumed last year, however, with another rise - from 9.5 per cent to 10.7 per cent - while the figure for women on the board hit a new peak of 3 per cent.
Roger Young, director general of the organisation, said this was still not sufficient. "There are not enough women at board level by a long shot. They bring a different perspective and different talents, and represent 50 per cent of society, so should be up there." He is, however, encouraged that more women appear to be aspiring to board positions - they account for at least half of the participants on many of the management courses that the IoM organises.
The Institute of Directors, which stresses that it does not favour positive discrimination, reports a 70 per cent increase in the number of women directors attending its development courses. The number of women members of the organisation, meanwhile, has grown by about 30 per cent in the past year, so that they represent about one-tenth of the 35,000-strong UK membership.
Opportunity 2000, the organisation that promotes women in business, was also encouraged by a doubling of the proportion of women managers among its 295 members in its fourth year of operation ending last November.
However, women still account for only 1 per cent of main board positions, and Liz Bargh, director of Opportunity 2000, believes there is a lot of work still to be done. "We just have to keep on saying that this is a serious business issue."
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Managing director in charge of the City pension fund business Deutsche-Morgan Grenfell
Horlick, 33, known in the Square Mile as "Superwoman" because she manages to combine her demanding post with marriage to a banker and having four children, is one of a band of influential women in finance. Someone who has known her since university days says: ''She's so dynamic she's frightening.''
Finance director of BTR. A hard-working 37-year-old who won favour with senior management of a famously cost-conscious organisation with her business acumen. BTR controls Dunlop and has a turnover of nearly pounds 10bn. O'Donovan helped to complete BTR's pounds 1.5bn bid for Hawker Siddeley. Colleagues say she likes to "get on with the job" - something that apparently means regular 13-hour days. A keen Manchester United supporter.
Chief executive of Laura Ashley, with long experience of retail business, both in her native US and in Britain. Appointed vice-president of Bloomingdales in 1984. Six years later, lured to Britain to turn round British Home Stores, a performance that established her reputation in this country. Became chief executive of Mothercare for two years before returning to the US. Aged 51, she relaxes with "easy fiction, the theatre and gardening in Arizona".
Finance director of J Sainsbury since March 1992, and a council member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, aged 44. Was previously group financial controller at Grand Metropolitan and has been financial director and company secretary at Harrods and in the finance department at Storehouse. Fellow of the Association of Corporate Treasurers and involved with the Prince's Youth Business Trust.Reuse content