Can't Get Distaff: The Vast Majority of Leading UK Firms Still Have No Female Executive Directors. Camilla Berens Finds That There Are More Complex Forces Behind the Continuing Lack of Women in Board-Level Jobs Than Old-Fashioned Sex Discrimination

By Berens, Camilla | Financial Management (UK), April 2006 | Go to article overview

Can't Get Distaff: The Vast Majority of Leading UK Firms Still Have No Female Executive Directors. Camilla Berens Finds That There Are More Complex Forces Behind the Continuing Lack of Women in Board-Level Jobs Than Old-Fashioned Sex Discrimination


Berens, Camilla, Financial Management (UK)


Less than a century ago the idea that a woman could become an MR let alone PM, was inconceivable. Women may have come a long way in their fight for equal standing since achieving full suffrage in 1928, but it's surprising to see how few are attaining positions of power. Today they make up only 20 per cent of MPs in the Commons and less than a quarter of the Cabinet. At the upper echelons of the business world, progress is even slower: just under 15 per cent of non-executive directors on FTSE-100 boards are women--and the proportion of female executive directors in these companies is a paltry three per cent.

So why, more than 30 years after the Sex Discrimination Act created the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), are so many women still failing to make it to the top of the corporate ladder? Is sex discrimination more prevalent in the boardroom than it is in Westminster's corridors of power? If the stories emerging from the recent spate of employment tribunals are anything to go by, sexism in the City is still very much part of daily life. Such cases have revealed that female high-flyers in the Square Mile still receive smaller bonuses than those awarded to their male colleagues; that senior male executives still openly refer to their female colleagues as "totty"; and that certain City grandees still classify women as "nannies, grannies or fannies", as former Tory MP Teresa Gorman so indelicately puts it.

Although more significant progress has been made in the public sector following several government initiatives to support women's careers, it seems that the private sector is failing to recognise their specific needs as they rise through the ranks. The EOC's annual "Sex and power" index paints a bleak picture of the future for working women across the board. The report concludes by suggesting that, unless certain barriers are removed, it will take 20 more years to achieve sexual equality in the upper grades of the civil service and twice that time for the same balance to be reached in FTSE-100 boardrooms.

Even the UK's more progressive blue-chip companies are failing to provide an environment that allows women to thrive. A recent internal investigation by BT into why female employees were leaving the company revealed a clear frustration with its male-dominated culture.

"Those women who do succeed here seem to do so on very 'male' terms," one former employee was quoted as saying. "I believe that women quite often sacrifice who they really are at work, which can be very tiring. We quite often work and think in a different way from men. This is not valued, even though it's equally valuable."

The demands on a senior executive in any organisation, large or small, can be exacting even more so if that individual has young children. Today's female executives are still struggling to balance their career aspirations with their natural inclination to raise a family. As long as most working women continue to accept the job of chief operations officer at home, is it really possible for them to get to board level without having an element of Superwoman in their genes'? CIMA past president Claire Ighodaro brought up three children while progressing to the role of finance director at BT's broadband division. But in an interview with FM in 2003 ("Precedent setter", July/August) she admitted that she regularly went without sleep to get everything done. Even Nicola Horlick, who juggled a job as a City fund manager with raising a family of six, couldn't have it all. Despite gaining acres of press coverage about her perfectly managed lifestyle, she was eventually forced out of her job at Morgan Grenfell and her marriage collapsed.

The good news for ambitious female accountants is that the finance profession appears to offer one of the best pathways into the boardroom. There are now nine female finance directors in the FTSE 250 and, according to Val Singh, senior research fellow in organisational behaviour at Cranfield School of Management, a growing number of women are taking this path because it's more structured than most. …

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