Jayne Dowle: Slow road towards ending inequality in boardrooms

LET'S get straight to the point. Any forward-thinking company worth its share price would do well to appoint more women as board directors.

Baroness Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, who appears in Vogue magazine's inaugural guide to Britain's 25 most influential and aspirational female figures.

This is not just because women tend to have more patience, better empathy and a broader experience of life than men. Above all, it’s because women and girls usually comprise at least half of the population, whereever you are in the world.

And these days, as some board directors might be shocked to learn, women drive cars, buy houses, design aeroplanes and trains and fight for their countries. They cannot be patted on the head, their motivations and concerns ignored.

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We have our second female Prime Minister, women running huge chunks of the judiciary and the emergency services, and Vogue magazine’s new list of top 25 influential women in Britain which includes a newspaper editor, a senior Whitehall mandarin in charge of promoting overseas trade and a biochemist specialising in degenerative dementia.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who appears in Vogue magazine's inaugural guide to Britain's 25 most influential and aspirational female figures.

If you’re a company attempting to sell, promote or market any kind of product, from life insurance to fish fingers, it pays to have someone helping helm the ship who might just have an insight into the instincts and consumer behaviour of 50 per cent of your target market.

That’s just one of the reasons why the interim report of the Hampton-Alexander Review is so disturbing. This Government-backed initiative is challenging the FTSE 350 companies to ensure that at least a third of their board members and senior leadership is female by 2020. At first glance, progress looks good. Since 2011, the number of women on company boards has more than doubled. At the same time, the number of all-male FTSE 350 company boards fell from 152 to 10. Wow, you might think. What’s the all fuss about?

I’ll tell you what the fuss is about. It’s the fact that many of these women appointed to highly-responsible and accountable positions are clearly only there under sufferance.

When the researchers asked a number of chairs and CEOs why there weren’t more women sitting beside them at the boardroom table, their responses make Sir Alan Sugar look as right-on and gender-aware as Germaine Greer. Even the official Government press release, a formal missive not often known for excess of emotion, said it was “shocking” and “outrageous”.

The Duchess of Sussex, who appears in Vogue magazine's inaugural guide to Britain's 25 most influential and aspirational female figures.

And no wonder. Here’s a few choice examples from those captains of UK industry. “We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it is someone else’s turn” – tokenism in its purest form, in other words. Or what about “women don’t fit in” or “don’t want the hassle”? Don’t fit into what, exactly? A male-dominated culture which doesn’t want them there in the first place?

And as for “hassle”. How dare this anonymous man speak on behalf of all ambitious women? How can he presume that he knows them better than they know themselves? I’d wager that most women know a lot more about “hassle” than most men, especially those who have survived in the professional world long enough to be considered capable of senior management.

Anyone who has ever worked in a competitive environment will appreciate the insight offered by the chair of the report, Sir Philip Hampton, who says that leaders express warm words of support all too often but actually do very little to appoint women into top jobs – or quietly block progress in invidious ways.

His findings have gone global and it doesn’t exactly put the UK in a good light. We trail behind France, where 39.8 per cent of executive and non-executive directorships are held by women, and Italy, where the figure is 32.2 per cent. Both countries have introduced recent official quotas to achieve gender equality at board level.

As yet, there seems to be little appetite for introducing similar legislation in the UK. Whilst we pride ourselves on independence of spirit, we should also be aware that gender equality at the top trickles down and benefits all employees.

All companies with more than 250 workers must now report how much it pays its male and female staff so that the gender pay gap can be tackled.

Many businesses reporting their gender pay gap earlier this year explained to the Hampton-Alexander Review team that disparity was due to insufficient women in senior roles, and/or a predominance of women in lower-paid work.

It’s clear that ensuring women are selected in more equal numbers for top jobs will significantly reduce the pay gap. Until this happens, women at all levels will struggle for parity.

It hardly makes for heartening reading, but I’m so glad that the researchers asked their respondents to say what they really thought. As Amanda Mackenzie, chief executive of entrepreneur-supporting charity Business in the Community puts it, the list of excuses could have come from 1918, not 2018. “It reads like a script from a comedy parody, but it’s true,” she said. “Surely we can now tackle this once and for all?” And she’s right. Opening up this particular can of worms does represent progress, of sorts. Now however, the hard work really begins.