First person: The battle isn’t won yet

We still don’t have enough women chairing company boards. A genuine attempt to fix this would require a culture change in boardrooms across the world and we are a long way off from that
by Anthony Hilton FCSI(Hon)


In early October 2019, the 30% Club announced that the proportion of women on boards of the FTSE 350 companies had reached 30% for the first time. It has been quite a journey. As one of the club’s founders, Dame Helena Morrissey, the then head of personal investing at Legal & General Investment Management, said: “Most of the letters I wrote asking for support in 2010 were met with flat rejection. Hitting the target today has given me hope that change is possible, that the mindset around gender and other forms of inequality can shift.”

Well, up to a point, Dame Helena! It was on the same day that one of the women who was a CEO of a FTSE 100 company, Alison Cooper of Imperial Brands, said she would quit. There were only five women CEOs in the FTSE 100 anyway – though that will continue now that Alison Rose has taken the top job at Royal Bank of Scotland. 

Cooper, however, is falling on her sword because Imperial has run into regulatory and political problems with the vaping products it hoped would be its future. As a result, Imperial’s shares have lost roughly 50% of their value in little more than two years. Some shareholders agitated, so the board dumped her although they didn’t have a replacement.

Women CEOs generally have a much harder route to get to the top, and it does not end therePerhaps there is a trend here. Women CEOs generally have a much harder route to get to the top, and it does not end there. If they do not turn the company around, or take too long, the board decides to try someone else.

Institutional shareholders do not help either. They are largely short term. Portfolio managers are by and large men – fund management is one of the worst places for women in the financial sector. According to a study by Warwick Business School, the inclusive, longer-term style that women tend to personify is not for these investors. 

Nor is it just that few women CEOs have long-term tenure and fewer still have another woman to follow them on. In Dame Inga Beale’s case at Lloyd’s of London, several other female executives followed her out of the door just a few months after she left.

It may be that many women don’t want the CEO’s job anyway. There are endless books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in, but they are written by the women who have made it. On the other hand, Christine Armstrong uncovered a different truth when researching her book The mother of all jobs. On the record, her interviewees avowed the importance of hard work and exceptional organisation in order to effectively juggle the dual tasks of working full-time and raising children. But off the record it transpired that the reality was altogether different: “The children are anorexic because I’m never home”; “Did I tell you I am halfway through a divorce?”; “I feel like I am heading for a breakdown”; “I work so many hours a week, I can’t go to bed without three glasses of wine. Then I wake up at 2am and do my emails. Then I get up at 6am to do it all again”. 
Business is still predominantly a male culture – it should not be, but it is

Ann Francke, now head of the Chartered Management Institute, was at one time a senior executive at Procter & Gamble. A single mother, almost every day she jetted all over Europe and back again to put her child to bed. Then a new boss arrived who said she had to stay overnight in whatever country she was in to take the local executives out to dinner. She quit a few months later.

Dame Helena adds that “nine out of ten men said they thought they should play as big a part in childcare as their wives, (but) the majority of men with caring responsibilities hide it from their employers because they don’t think it is compatible with career progression or job security, and that is a real indictment”.

Business is still predominantly a male culture – it should not be, but it is. Headhunters and chairs of the board need to widen their pool of potential candidates by making a genuine attempt to employ half of the population according to their ability. And the ludicrously long hours required to climb the executive pyramid need to be cut. 

But business needs a culture change, and we are a long way from that. 

This article was originally published in the February 2020 print edition of The Review

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Published: 14 Feb 2020
  • Opinion
  • The Review
  • women in finance
  • diversity
  • culture change
  • Anthony Hilton

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