Bri­tain’s top CEOS: an­te­dilu­vian at­ti­tudes?

The Week - - News | Talking Points -

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Men are so hon­est, so thor­oughly square; Eter­nally noble, his­toric’ly fair; Who, when you win, will al­ways give your back a pat. Well, why can’t a woman be more like that?” That was Henry Hig­gins’s take on the gen­der di­vide more than a cen­tury ago and, ac­cord­ing to a damning new re­port, it’s a per­spec­tive shared by many busi­ness lead­ers to­day, said Ju­dith Woods in The Daily Tele­graph. When re­searchers work­ing for the gov­ern­ment-backed Hamp­ton-alexander Re­view chal­lenged the CEOS of FTSE 350 com­pa­nies to ex­plain why there are still so few women on their boards, they were given a range of as­ton­ish­ing ex­cuses, which can be sum­marised thus: “Women are ir­ra­tional, that’s all there is to that! Heads full of cot­ton, hay and rags!”

Do you se­cretly sus­pect that women, with their fee­ble lady brains, sim­ply aren’t up to run­ning a busi­ness? Well, it turns out you’re not alone, said El­iza Cum­mings-cove in The In­de­pen­dent. In ex­plain­ing the paucity of women on his board, one CEO noted that it tack­les “ex­tremely com­plex” is­sues. An­other wor­ried that women would not “fit com­fort­ably into the board en­vi­ron­ment”. In­deed they may not fit, given the in­flated male egos al­ready squashed around the table. Ap­par­ently, “most women don’t want the has­sle or pres­sure of sit­ting on a board”, which is a pa­thetic ex­cuse for not even try­ing to ac­com­mo­date them. There was “we have one woman al­ready on the board, so we are done” (yes, they’re re­ally em­brac­ing di­ver­sity), and “I can’t just ap­point a woman be­cause I want to” (oh yes you can). It seems that, for the lead­ers of our most pow­er­ful busi­nesses, pro­mot­ing women is “a bit of a pain, a lot of ef­fort and an un­wanted dis­rup­tion to the old boys’ club”.

It is “jaw-drop­ping” that in 2018 ex­ec­u­tives should hold such views, said Daniel Thomas in the FT, “let alone sub­mit them to an of­fi­cial re­view”. But progress has in fact been made since the Gov­ern­ment be­gan push­ing for more women on boards: in the six years to 2017, the num­ber dou­bled in the FTSE 350. How­ever, the pace is likely to be slow­ing, be­cause the big­gest firms, with pub­lic rep­u­ta­tions to de­fend, were al­ways go­ing to be quick to change – and there’s still a lot of work to do: al­most 100 firms in the FTSE 250 have only one woman on the board, or none. In this re­spect, one boss’s ex­cuse mer­its scru­tiny: his share­hold­ers don’t care about women on the board, he said, so why should he? Well, share­hold­ers should care, not least be­cause the “eco­nomic ar­gu­ments for di­verse boards are well doc­u­mented”. The time for plat­i­tudes is over: own­ers must take ac­tion and vote against the chair­men who fail to pro­mote women.

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