Board­room boys still full of ex­cuses for lack of equal­ity

A govern­ment re­view into the short­age of fe­male ex­ec­u­tives has ex­posed amaz­ingly back­ward at­ti­tudes,

The Observer - - Businees & Cash - writes Rob Davies

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

Pho­to­graph by Chris Rat­cliffe/ Getty

Dame He­len Alexan­der, who died last year, over­saw the re­view with Sir Philip Hamp­ton.

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