Equality goes by the board: Outmoded sexism hurts the economy as far too few women achieve real corporate power, says RUTH SUNDERLAND
This week is the 21st anniversary of Cranfield University’s Female FTSE Index, which tracks the number of female directors at blue chip firms.
But despite the well-meaning initiatives, it will show that far too few women are achieving real corporate power.
The glacial pace of change is shameful. Most FTSE 100 companies are on course to hit a target for a third of board members to be women by next year, which sounds impressive, but behind those bald numbers the picture is far less rosy.
Worthy ideal: But despite well-meaning initiatives far too few women are achieving real corporate power
Most boards are adorned with a smattering of female non-executives, but too many firms hire one woman and leave it at that.
Female directors are far less likely than men to be given senior board roles and their tenure is significantly shorter, which experts suspect may indicate they are seen as symbolic, not substantial appointments.
The overall impression is that since Government-backed targets for boardroom diversity were introduced a few years ago, companies have simply aimed to tick boxes. Prejudice against female leaders is still there, albeit less likely to be expressed out loud.
Only six FTSE 100 firms have female chief executives. Back in 2005 there was just one, Dame Marjorie Scardino of Pearson. So there is an improvement, but at this rate it could take more than a century to reach parity.
In some sectors, such as engineering, there are relatively few female professionals. But that doesn’t answer the question why there are no women leading major supermarkets, or why no one has thought to give a woman a shot at reviving M&S.
Even when women reach the top they still suffer a gender pay gap. Female FTSE chiefs are clustered at the bottom of the pay table, receiving an average of £3million compared with £5.8million overall.
Condescending attitudes persist towards women – even those operating at the very highest level, such as IMF boss Christine Lagarde, who is in line to be the next head of the European Central Bank.
She is being subjected to sniffy comments suggesting that because she is not an economist she might not be able to cope with fine-tuning monetary policy.
There are good reasons to object to Lagarde, including a conviction in a French court for ‘negligence’ linked to the misuse of public funds. But the implication she might not be able to get her elegantly coiffed head around the idea of quantitative easing is not one of them.
Is this sexism? Well, a chap called Jerome Powell is not an economist either – like Lagarde, he is a lawyer – yet nobody minds him being head of the world’s most powerful central bank, the US Federal Reserve.
One glimmer of hope is the rise of women in finance. Jayne-Anne Gadhia was until recently at the helm of Virgin Money, Debbie Crosbie leads TSB and Shriti Vadera is Santander chairman.
They may soon be joined by Alison Rose, who is tipped to become the first female boss of RBS.
Putting women at the helm of banks is important because they could kick-start support for female entrepreneurs, who start businesses at a much lower rate than men.
Rose herself conducted research showing if women launched companies on a par with men it could create £250billion of value for the UK economy. And there’s the rub. In a post-Brexit economy, when we need to make the most of all of the country’s talent, outmoded sexism costs money.