Boardroom boys still full of excuses for lack of equality
A government review into the shortage of female executives has exposed amazingly backward attitudes,
Today is the day that, by rights, no one could really complain if women in the UK simply downed tools and put their feet up for the rest of the year. Equal Pay Day, which fell yesterday, reflects the disparity between the wage deals enjoyed by men and women.
The gender pay gap may be at its lowest ever, but men still get paid 8.6% more on average than their female counterparts. Given that we are now 91.4% of the way through the year, why should women lift a finger again until 1 January? It’s fitting that Equal Pay Day should fall shortly before the final report of the government’s Hampton-Alexander review is released on Tuesday.
Under the watchful eyes of the former RBS chairman Sir Philip Hampton and the businesswoman Dame Helen Alexander – who sadly died last year – the review has been examining why there is such a shortage of women in British boardrooms. There have been some intriguing findings since the review began its work in 2016, not least the extraordinary excuses offered by some pinstripe-clad executives.
“There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex,” one luminary of the business world told the review’s researchers. “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment,” said another, apparently unaware that this might be a more telling criticism of the board environment than of any women seeking entry to it.
A third claimed that all the good women had been “snapped up”, eliciting a beautifully sardonic response from the media guru Stevie Spring. “We’ve got true equality when mediocre women get snapped up like mediocre men do,” she said.
The Hampton-Alexander review set businesses a target of having a third of boardroom position occupied by women by 2020. Figures released in June showed that FTSE 100 firms were on track to meet this goal, having reached 29% female representation. The broader FTSE 350 was some way behind on 25.5%, meaning it is likely to come up short.
Furthermore, the figures disguise the fact that women disproportionately occupy less-powerful, non-executive roles that provide checks and balances on people who wield actual power. In the FTSE 100, only 10% of the highest full-time “executive” roles were held by women, according to the review’s last report in May.
Only six out of the top 100 chief executive positions were held by women as of March. That number has since increased to eight. So what to expect from the full Hampton Alexander report? Some clues can be gleaned from the opening speech due to be given by Melanie Richards, deputy chair of the accounting firm KPMG, which sponsored the report and crunched the numbers on it. A copy has been seen by the Observer. “In society at large there is not equality of opportunity,” Richards will say. “And in turn, our businesses are (often unintentionally) not as meritocratic as we would like to think.
“The issue of female representation at board and senior levels has in the past been overlooked by business leaders, perhaps because the problem seemed insurmountable. It has been a fight to change this perception, but over the past few years there has been a very noticeable shift. Change is happening. Together, we have created a zeitgeist.”
Progress is being made but there’s a lot further to go. Expect harsh light to be shone on boardrooms that have made little or no effort to increase female representation and thus step blinking into the 21st century.
‘We’ve got true equality when mediocre women get snapped up like mediocre men do’ Stevie Spring, media guru
Dame Helen Alexander, who died last year, oversaw the review with Sir Philip Hampton.