Women on boards – Rome wasn’t built in a day


This morning’s reaction to the poor excuses made by some of the FTSE 350 leaders as to why they had no or only one woman on their boards is a good reminder of how far thinking and action on gender in the boardroom has actually come. Some of the views expressed by leaders, which may have been  acceptable ten years ago,  have been condemned as pitiful, sexist and patronising.

I was lucky enough to become a non-executive director of a FTSE 250 company nearly fifteen years ago. So I recognise all the excuses in the report, as well as some that leaders would probably not utter to an interviewer today.

The timing of my appointment in 2003 was not a coincidence.  The Higgs Report on the Role and Effectiveness of Non-Executive Directors had been published the year before in 2002 and it recommended that companies cast their nets wider for their non-executive roles.

An enlightened headhunter had heard about me and approached me for a position. To be honest at the time it wouldn’t have crossed my mind as I certainly didn’t  have the ‘right’ sort of career path to get on to a board. So I was grateful to Derek Higgs, the timing and of course the lovely headhunter. But I was also lucky that the small board I joined were welcoming and appointed me despite my ‘different background’.  There was a risk in that and I know that the headhunter worked very hard in persuading the directors that I was going to be an asset to them.  My research has showed that men’s attitudes to sharing power with women is an important factor in determining how many women can progress in an organisation.

The headhunter  warned me about why I may not get a position and it wasn’t my lack of management experience. ‘You will be  considered too  young, and too pretty,’ and another  ‘Luckily you are married as they don’t want anyone who is divorced’. I had to keep very quiet (even to the headhunter) as I was about to embark on a very messy divorce at the time.  I certainly heard a member from my own board when recruiting another non-executive, say ‘we don’t want another different person’ clearly meaning they already had one! And then he looked across at me rather apologetically as he realised what he had said!

I don’t hold any grudges at all.  At that time I and other women were  breaking into a cosy all male club which isn’t comfortable for either side. I understood that. I learned from them and am extremely grateful for the experience.

The Davies Review, which introduced targets and the threat of quotas if they were not met by 2015 has resulted in boards finding women who were invisible to them before.  Importantly since 1999 there has been a consistent annual monitoring of women on boards  by  Professor Susan Vinnicombe’s team at Cranfield School of Management aka the Female FTSE 100 Report.  This keeps the pressure up and we know that what gets measured gets done.

Today’s report says that 10 of the FTSE 350 companies still do not have a single female board member. However this is a vast improvement since the Davies Review on Women on Boards published in early 2011 when  over one half of them had no women in the boardroom at all.  In 2011 only 7.8% of all main board directors were women and this increased to 21% last year. Acknowledging progress is as important as highlighting areas that still need improvement. Attitudes take a while to change but in this area I would say that they have changed pretty quickly. The executive  positions are a different matter and quite rightly attention is being turned to improving figures there.