Leading Article: Cracking the glass ceiling

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Marks & Spencer has appointed its first female executive member of the board, Clara Freeman. Well, good for Clara and good for M&S. Could this be further evidence that the fabled glass ceiling is finally cracking and women are making it to the top at last in the corporate sector?

Currently only a pitiful 3 per cent of company directors are women, according to the Institute of Management - a small rise from 2.6 per cent in 1992. And the number of women in top positions has increased, if slowly, over the last 10 years. The further down the company you go, the more women there are. Women make up 11 per cent of all managers. Clearly generational change is starting to occur; the grey-suited men retiring from directorships today are watching their dynamic daughters climb the career ladder behind them.

But although the ceiling may be cracking, it is still not allowing women to rise at the same speed as men. Research by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research shows that women at all levels of management stand a smaller chance of being promoted than their male colleagues. Most surprising of all, the biggest promotion gap is between young women and men. This is a telling disparity because the important rungs in most people's career ladders need to be climbed in their twenties and thirties if they are to make it right to the top. Unfortunately for women, that is just the age when many of them are opting to have children.

We all know the story. Even the mother who wants to keep working after the children are born still insists on getting home in time to pick them up from the creche at five. Meanwhile, back in the office, her male colleague is still bashing away at the keyboard. Those extra hours earn him Brownie points with the promotion board.

If companies sit back and wait for talented women to battle their way through, it could be a long time before women are as well represented at the top of the business as they are at the bottom. Many leading executives are already aware that they are wasting the talents of highly qualified and intelligent women.

There is much that companies could and ought to do to make better use of their female staff.

First, they should change the long-hours culture which ensures that the highest rewards go to those who commit most evenings to the company. Accommodating women's - and increasingly men's - need for more flexible work without penalising their promotion prospects is essential. And companies ought to make better use of women returning to work: bright mothers in their fifties should be just as appropriate for top positions as younger men who have not taken time out for children.

Only by introducing such measures now will Britain be able to draw on the best talent to fill the top industrial posts in the next century.

Gentlemen, it's time for a bit of forward planning.