Women would not play boardroom games

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The Independent Online
EARLIER this month, for the first time, I heard about an organisation called Prowess, whose aims should be broadcast far and wide. It exists to broaden the pool of people from whom non-executive directors are chosen. Non-executive directors sit on the boards of companies and monitor (among other things) the salaries paid to directors. On the subject of directors' remuneration I start to splutter and go red in the face, so let us quickly return to Prowess.

According to what I read, Prowess believes that white middle-class males are over- represented on company boards (dead right) and is keen to recruit more women to serve as non-executive directors. Its managing director, Jo Cutmore, says that boardrooms would benefit from more women, with specifically female attributes. And what might those be? I quote Ms Cutmore:

'Women tend to be non-status conscious, non-confrontational, facilitating, willing to go out on a limb, ask that basic question, think along broader lines, and they have higher ethical standards.'

She said, please note, tend to. This is a generalisation, not Cutmore's First Law, so let's have no indignant letters to the editor from people who think that to refute her argument they need merely to cite exceptions. (Of course there are exceptions - Baroness Thatcher, for one. She's a woman all right, but non-confrontational?) On the whole, however, Ms Cutmore is right, though I doubt whether the serried ranks of white middle-class males in their fifties and sixties who pack the boardrooms of Britain will have the grace to acknowledge as much. Theirs has been a cosy monopoly for far too long, and they won't collude in its undoing.

I once asked one of 'the great and the good', a man with multiple non-executive directorships to his name, how he found time to master all the necessary background reading and figures. 'I wouldn't dream of trying,' he said. 'I glance through the latest report and balance sheet in the taxi on my way to the board meeting, just like everyone else. My value to the company derives from experience and sound business instincts, and the fact that I bring a fresh eye to their problems.' If you're a man, nod your head; if you're a woman, gasp at his effrontery.

Ms Cutmore points out that women place less emphasis than men on status. Status consciousness begins to resemble a kind of higher lunacy when it comes to men and company cars. The chap in the television programme Tales of Modern Motoring who admitted that he wept when he no longer rated a car with an 'i' to its name was, to my mind, certifiably insane. I had not even known what the 'i' meant (fuel injection, apparently). 'These days, 'i' on your car stands for important,' he blubbed.

Men are obsessed with the trappings of office; from lawyers in wigs to the Serjeant-at- Arms in knee breeches. Tradition? Rubbish. The present Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, has dispensed with a good deal of the fal de rol without surrendering any authority. Politicians are the most obsessed of all - as Alan Clark's magnificently subversive Diaries reveal.

Ms Cutmore's most important justification for introducing more women to company boardrooms, however, is the one she cites last: women have higher ethical standards. I don't know why this should be so, but it is true, and they are often ridiculed for it by men - called nave, credulous, pedantic. What such patronising belittling actually means is that their clear-sighted, generous and scrupulous behaviour threatens the male way of doing things by wheeling and dealing and mutual backscratching.

It would be much harder to convince a woman board member that directors who were already earning hundreds of thousands deserved a large salary increase unless profits, or at any rate productivity, had been boosted by a similar amount. Isn't that the argument that's always used to the workers?

Most women, on becoming non-executive directors, would simply refuse to 'play the game', and their probity and sense of justice explains why they remain in a derisory minority at board level, despite having shone in the workplace for two or more decades. If Prowess can change what equal opportunity legislation could not, there will be red faces round the boardroom table - and a grin all over mine.