Women on the board

Hannah Langworth finds out why the business world needs more female leaders and what it takes to get to the top

The FTSE 100 recently gained a new female chief executive as EasyJet, headed by Carolyn McCall, ascended into the ranks of the UK's largest companies.

However, her achievement mainly served to highlight how few of these elite companies are headed by women - McCall is one of just three female FTSE 100 chief executives, the others being Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco and Angela Ahrendts of Burberry.

The British fashion brand is a trailblazer in this area: 38 per cent of its directors are women, which puts it at the top of the female director leaderboard. There are, however, currently six FTSE 100 companies with no female directors at all.

To understand the problem, the steps being taken to address it, and why students interested in business should be thinking about it, we spoke to Rowena Ironside, chair of Women On Boards, an organisation that helps UK women get into business leadership positions.

Rowena spent 25 years as an executive in the IT industry, including founding and later selling her own successful IT services business. She's also an angel investor, and has had extensive executive and non-executive board experience.

Why is it important to have women on boards?

For me it's about equity - it's important to have women's voices heard more loudly in all areas. In addition, I think society, the economy and all organisations function in a much better way when you've got a mix of men and women.

What do you think is stopping more women from reaching senior positions in business?

Women often don't champion their own achievements - very often you'll find women doing a really good job and thinking that will get them a promotion.

But sadly all the research shows that you also have to make sure your boss and other people in the organisation are aware that you are, because there will be other people out there doing a good job and shouting about it.

You also have to understand what's important in an organisation - who's powerful, who needs to know about you - and a lot of women don't want to play that game. But if you want to get on in business, you have to.

Do you think introducing legally enforceable quotas of female directors is a good idea?

When people say that promotion should be purely on merit, there's an assumption that everyone currently on a board has got there on merit.

But the fact is that people are often there because they were known by those already on the board when they were appointed, which doesn't mean they're necessarily the best person for the job.

And there's some very good research that shows men spend more time talking to men reporting to them than to women reporting to them, which means they're more comfortable with them and know more about what they're doing. So because of this unconscious bias, you need something pushing in the opposite direction.

We support a target for all companies of 40 per cent men, 40 per cent women, and 20 per whoever makes sense in their environment. At Women on Boards we also like what the Financial Reporting Council has done: asking firms to report on the diversity of their boards and within the organisation as a whole.

In his 2010 report on Women in Boards, Lord Davies set at target of 25 per cent women on FTSE 100 boards by 2015, and we like that too because if you don't put a number to an aim, you're unlikely to get there.

I think legal quotas are unlikely to come in here in the UK because there are risks around unintended consequences. For example, there are small companies who would just put an existing director's wife on the board. Legal action can be too much of a blunt instrument - I think getting culture to change is more important.

How positive do you feel about achieving significant progress in this area?

I think it's going to be a tough ongoing battle. But Women On Boards has generated a lot of enthusiasm and goodwill around the issue, and has started to create a supportive network for women in business.

Role models are hugely important - once we get a few more women up there, they'll pull up more women behind them, and that will start to make a really sustainable change.

What's holding a board position like, and why would you recommend it as a career goal?

Board roles are intellectually stimulating as you're operating at the most strategic level with a diverse group of talented individuals. You get to use your wisdom to help others get things done.

How to become a FTSE 100 chief executive

What can you be doing as a student or recent graduate to make yourself eligible to lead one of the UK's largest corporations in the future? Here's Rowena's advice:

Network

Business is all about who you know and who knows you, so make sure that you find time to build networks throughout your career. Women in particular tend to drop their networks when they get busy, but it's these that will help you get a board role.

Get breadth of experience

Whether it's taking on an international role or making a sideways move in your career into a completely different organisation, the broader your experience is, the more valuable you are as an executive.

Start with a board role at a charity or small company

You can often take on a board role at a charity quite early on in your career, which will make you very valuable to your employer because you'll learn about strategy. In addition, there are tens of thousands of corporate organisations in the UK that aren't in the FTSE 100 that all need directors as well.

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