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Women on Top: sexual politics in the boardroom

Patrick Burns | 14:21 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Blair babes May 1997

Blair's Babes, May 1997 (Gisela Stuart is front row, 6th from the left)

Parliament just didn't know what had hit it.

Long-regarded as the most exclusive gentlemen's club in London, suddenly the House of Commons had to adjust to no fewer than 120 women MPs after the 1997 New Labour landslide, of whom 'Blair's Babes' were the most conspicuous new arrivals.

It was double the number of women who had been elected to the previous Parliament in 1992.

And no, I am not forgetting that Margaret Thatcher had become Britain's first woman Prime Minister as long as 42 years ago. But surely her achievement in reaching that supreme office was precisely that she had to overcome the male-dominated environment of Westminster politics in order to do so.

Now we appear to have a settled trend: the number of women elected in last year's General Election climbed further, to 144 out of the total of 505.

There is still an obvious debate to be had about how relatively few of them get to the top: the Meriden MP and DEFRA Secretary Caroline Spelman is one of only four women in the present Cabinet. Even so, Parliament's reputation as a conspicuously masculine preserve appears to be disappearing fast.

And now, it seems, the Government wants the boardroom to follow the same example.

The Business Secretary Vince Cable wants at least one quarter of the directors of top 100 companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange to be women by 2015.

An investigation by the Politics Show reveals that of 31 such exalted seat placements here in the West Midlands, only four are occupied by women.

We contacted our region's three quoted FTSE100 companies GKN, IMI and Severn Trent and their responses demonstrate that so far as the corridors of power are concerned, the feminisation of British industry definitely has its limitations.

Across the UK, only three women joined the boards of our quoted top 100 companies last year. The current average female contingent is 12.5%. So Mr Cable certainly has his work cut out of that figure is to double over the next four years.

So what's the answer? Quotas? Targets?

Any attempt to introduce 'postitive discrimination' or what the Americans call 'affirmative action' inevitably leads to a cacophony of arguments about 'tokenism' and 'political correctness gone mad'!

Which begs the question what signals this sends out to the would-be businesswomen of the future. Remember, girls outnumber boys. They outperform them in the classroom so why not in the corporate world as well?

For an expert view, we turned to Corinne Mills, herself a successful businesswomen, one of the bosses of a company whose name tells you exactly what it is! Personal Career Management opened their Birmingham office last year, offering advice on the next move in the jobs market for everyone from young graduates to experienced company directors or chief executives.

Corinne acknowledges that of course women have to take career breaks to have babies. But that does not explain the sexism that still exists in the upper echelons of business. Do chief executives too often  recruit senior colleagues in their own image?

That's our talking point for this week's Politics Show.

Our reporter Holly Lewis will be asking the Chief Executive of Severn Trent, Tony Wray, why he has only one woman on his board when they make up nearly one-third of his workforce (you can watch the full interview below).

And she will also be reporting from Cheltenham Ladies' College, which has an enviable record in producing successful female captains of industry: how do the next generation of businesswomen rate their chances of making it into the boardroom?

I'll be joined in the studio by three leading local women politicians: Margot James had a highly successful career in business before entering Parliament last year as the Conservative MP for Stourbridge; Gisela Stuart was herself one of those so-called 'Blair Babes' and she is still the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston; and Heather Kidd is a Liberal Democrat member of Shropshire Council, a member of her party's Business policy team.

Email your views on this: and follow us on Twitter let us know what you think with the hashtag #polshowmids

And of course I hope you'll join us for the Politics Show from midday on BBC One on Sunday 3 April 2011.

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  • Comment number 1.

    "Remember, girls outnumber boys." says the article. Actually boys outnumber girls but more of them die, so that from the age of about 31 onwards women outnumber men.

    Girls outperform boys by very little in the classroom and not at all at the top end of achievement.

    What's the sex ratio for people setting up companies?


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