Samira Ahmed: The man from Glencore just doesn't get it

Mr Murray has nothing against women, it's just that they don't meet his standards
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The Independent Online

On the "people and employment" section of its website Glencore International AG says its "recruitment and selection principles are designed to ensure that the best people are chosen for the right positions." The view of the chairman, Simon Murray, seems to be that women aren't best: "They're not so ambitious in business as men because they've better things to do. Quite often they like bringing up their children and all sorts of other things."

Apart from the fact that he seems to have confused gestation with maternity leave (UK ladies can actually take a year off, not nine months), what's most remarkable is that Mr Murray might never have let slip his view of women's suitability for the boardroom.

The world's largest commodity trader is currently private. Mr Murray rarely gives interviews. But as Glencore prepares to go public with a 20 per cent flotation on the London Stock Exchange, he has been appointed chairman, and so comes the obligation to talk more publicly, and to be subject to the regulatory and transparency obligations of UK law, too. His gaffe has horrified many; Business Secretary Vince Cable led the attacks on his "extremely primitive attitude". But is it really, as Mr Cable suggested, "completely unacceptable for the chairman of what will be one of the UK's biggest PLCs"?

This is not a "Ratner" moment. Gerald Ratner, the CEO of his family's jewellery store, saw his firm lose an estimated £500m in share value after joking in a 1991 speech to the Institute of Directors about the "crap" quality of some £1 earrings. Customers stop buying if they think they're being insulted and ripped off. That's what frightens shareholders.

Mr Murray's comments have offended many, but they won't frighten shareholders. Companies are obliged by law to make the best profits they can. Pension funds, probably including yours, are going to be the largest purchasers of Glencore stock; seeking the best returns themselves. Being hard on your employees in hard times is the unwritten mantra of corporate governance, in the aftermath of the economic crisis.

Of course Mr Murray has nothing against women, it's just that they don't meet his standards. Glencore's website also says it needs "people who think and act like entrepeneurs, are willing to learn, are passionate about their work and strive to be leaders in their field".

Only three years after a banking crash for which the macho culture of high finance was widely blamed, this 71-year-old has done nothing more than been honest about how many men in boardrooms feel about themselves and how they got there. Younger men who seek to have a reasonable work-life balance find themselves in the same "mommy track" (as Americans call it) as women seeking promotion.

In a statement, Mr Murray apologised for "any" offence caused by his comments, citing that familiar line that "businesses which fail to address the under-representation of women at all levels will be at a competitive disadvantage." If companies – not just big commodity trading companies – believed that, women wouldn't be losing their jobs on the disproportionate scale they are across the workplace. Government data in 2009 revealed women were losing their jobs at twice the rate of men.

If there is a way forward, it may be that carrots, rather than the sticks of "quotas", work best. There are annual awards in the City where firms celebrate equality in the workplace. There's even a gong for the highest proportion of women on the boards. Chief executives, such as Sainsbury's Justin King, have come to receive recognition for their actions; not what they say on their company recruitment website. Incentives such as these are highly effective.

Once Glencore is publicly listed, and if Mr Murray is sincere in his wish to rectify "under-representation of women at all levels", perhaps he should attend one of next year's ceremonies.

Samira Ahmed presents Channel 4 News