Greg Wright: Lack of women in executive posts is shameful

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WHEN economic historians look back on the early years of the 21st century, a number of things will puzzle them.

They will be baffled by our failure to create a sustainable, long term energy policy.

They will be appalled by our failure to invest in training for our young people.

They will be amazed by our collective capacity for acts of stupidity when it was far too easy to gain credit.

But, perhaps above all else, they will be flabbergasted by the fact that so few women occupied corporate leadership positions.

There are simply no excuses. The “gender gap” at executive level is colossal and shameful.

Every year, women make up about half the graduate intake at many firms, but a pitifully small number of them go on to make it to the top table.

We might, perhaps, take some comfort from the latest report from BDO which shows that the number of female directors on the boards of Yorkshire’s largest 150 companies has broken the 100 mark for the first time.

But the fact remains that around 88 per cent of company directors are men.

I agree with Terry Jones, who heads up BDO’s operation in Yorkshire. He says that we’re suffering a disastrous loss of talented people because so few women become directors.

Although the gender gap is narrowing, it is moving at snail’s pace.

PwC’s Women in Work Index, for example, shows that the UK ranks 18th out of 27 OECD countries based on a measure that combines indicators of female economic empowerment.

The Nordic countries continue to lead the index, with Norway still taking pole position, followed by Denmark and Sweden. These three countries have consistently occupied the top three positions since the index was launched in 2000.

So what can we learn from countries like Norway?

Well, according to PwC, one of the reasons the Nordic countries top the index is because they recognise that men and women should be able to balance their career and family life. PwC’s research suggests that childcare and household tasks are shared more evenly between parents in these countries, which has improved work-life balance for men and women.

So Britain has some catching up to do. Earlier this year, a Yorkshire Post investigation revealed that just one fifth of partners in Yorkshire’s top professional services firms are female.

As Des Hudson, the Halifax-born chief executive of the Law Society, told me recently: “In terms of people who are going to join the legal profession this year, about 60 per cent will be female. If I look at the number of females who are partners in the major firms, it’s around about 35 per cent, so we have more progress to make. It’s about trying to get people to look at new ways of working.”

The Fawcett Society, which has worked for women’s rights since 1866, recently highlighted the fact that the average gap in pay between women and men had widened for the first time in five years.

According to the Fawcett Society’s latest research, women are more likely to be employed in low paid, part-time work, and they are more likely to head a single parent household,

They are also likely to have fewer financial assets and they are more likely to live in poverty, especially in older age.

The society says: “A more progressive parental leave system and flexible working practices will go some way in shifting the ‘motherhood penalty’ that many women currently face. Supporting and protecting women at work brings benefits to not only women themselves, but allows for a more equitable division of caring responsibilities between men and women and allows employers to reach the widest available talent pool.”

The boardrooms of Yorkshire’s top companies should reflect the wider world. Any failure to invest in the talents of female executives will act as a significant barrier to growth.