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Diverse Attractions

Douglas Fraser | 11:56 UK time, Sunday, 27 February 2011

What is it about women, or is it all the fault of grey, older men? Why is there a glass ceiling for women's progress to company boardrooms?

To what extent does it harm the interests of Britain's companies?

Just some of the questions I've been pondering in light of the Davies Report into boardroom diversity, or lack of it.

It's not the first time anyone's noted the problem, but the latest figures show previous efforts to change it have fallen woefully short.

Only one in eight FTSE 100 directors is female, and nearly half of FTSE 250 companies have no women at all on the board.

By men, for men

For 'Business Scotland' this week (which can be found on iplayer and via podcast) I've been hearing from two of those most closely involved in challenging that male dominance.

One is a co-author of the Davies Report, Professor Sue Vinnicombe. She observes that organisations were designed "by men, for men".

That helps explain why a high-octane workaholism is respected at the top, although she argues that more flexible work patterns can deliver positive results for everyone.

It's just that it's rarely tried at the most senior levels.

Perhaps it's also to do with top executive pay. If that were moderated, it might put less pressure on the pay-cheque recipients to burn themselves out in pursuit of often short-term results.

Quota stigma

Also contributing to the discussion was Debbie Atkins of Tods Murray legal partnership in Edinburgh, and a founder of a women in business network.

She is one of those to share the Davies Report conclusion against Norwegian-style quotas for boardrooms.

In Oslo, they legislated for at least 40% of posts to go to females.

The Davies Report suggests instead that boards should be pressured this year to set targets for increasing women's representation, leading to at least a quarter by 2015.

If that doesn't make the difference, the threat of legislated quotas hangs in the air.

Incidentally, it's worth noting that survey evidence of women finds they support the idea of quotas, but it's rather more difficult to find individuals who will speak up for them.

It's probable that those who are in senior posts don't want to be stigmatised as being there to fill quotas.

'Positive action'

Nor is Debbie Atkins in favour of positive discrimination, meaning a requirement on employers to help fast-track women returning from child-rearing career breaks.

Instead, she talks of "positive action", encouraging employers to see the potential that such women have.

"People who have taken a career break could be much more valuable than someone who maybe traditionally has worked in one pattern in one firm for many years," she says.

What, then, of positive action for others who are under-represented in company boardrooms?

What of racial diversity, particularly for companies seeking to understand other races in target export markets?

What about younger people - perhaps those with an intuitive feel for modern consumer markets and technology?

And what about employee representation, which is common in continental Europe, but only a minority interest in Britain?

Sue Vinnicombe says: "The fundamental problem is the lack of women at the top. Once companies have championed gender diversity, the evidence seems to be that questions of other diversity will sort themselves out". Discuss.

Hungry for assets

On the programme this week, I was discussing Centrica's offshore oil and gas operations since its hostile takeover of Aberdeen's Venture Production in 2009, with its managing director Jonathan Roger.

On Thursday, he announced profits up by nearly a third to £581m, in the first full year since the merger with Centrica's previous offshore operations.

This was also a year in which the company bought Suncor, one of Trinidad's big producers of liquid natural gas.

Unfortunately, he was not being drawn on the prospects for buying around $1bn of BP assets in the North Sea, placed on the market this week.

But the older fields, many of them gas and in the southern sector, look to this untrained eye like a perfect fit for asset-hungry Centrica.

Let us know what you think.

We're open to feedback and new ideas for the programme, for which you can write to


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'd like to nominate post #1 as winner of this board. Really, no one else need bother responding. The game is over.

  • Comment number 3.

    Lost count of the number of colleagues that have went off on maternity / paternity leave, indeed some having back to back to back occasions. This creates complete havoc in continuity in customer service, and has at times caused higher workloads for other colleagues! Ironically we have a female CEO! who suffers from the glaswiegen wee man disease, probably where her nick name of 1/2 pint originated, eitehr that or her 1st name stella! Anyways she does as she's telt by the owners, thats a tight male rein!

  • Comment number 4.

    Okay, I have finally slugged my way through Lord Davies' Report. Ho-hum! Let me tell you this: The one thing that is not diverse is Davies' overall approach.
    It's same-old, same-old boardroom stuff, how we should go about shaping diversity - squeezing, training, hammering, pulling and pushing - to make women fit into unnatural circumstances.
    Simply put, most women are not willing to do this, though they might try mighty hard for the paycheque. Generally-speaking, women don't see a career as competing with men to shatter the glass ceiling.
    The concept of the Davies' Report is harmful to the interests of Britain's companies. As I read, I couldn't help visualize an army of diversity - racial as well as gender - all dressed in remarkably similar business suits and marching to the boardroom.
    What I believe we need in business is a totally different approach - less boardroom and more grassroots. Get out of the boardroom, get on the working floor, talk to the workers. A good worker knows what frustrates him/her, what slows production, what causes friction, how to lubricate the system.
    Has it occurred to men like Lord Davies that women want no part of the boardroom. They want challenge and responsibility, the ability to change companies so that in addition to making a profit, the business becomes worker friendly, family friendly e.g. free childcare on site.
    Except for the fancier language and the prettier business suits, the essence of British "business" has not changed since the 1850's. In short, it has not moved moved forward to recognize that women think and operate differently; women are not shape-shifted men. They operate with a female brain. Men and women can work well together, but only if women are allowed to be women and not put-on the little gentlemen costume.
    Davies Report, Professor Sue Vinnicombe: organisations were designed "by men, for men". Right on! And this is the key to the problem.
    What is needed is a new industural revolution. For women I don't believe it has a lot to do with top executive pay or workaholism (burning your way out of a job). It's about moderation, balance, the life cycle if you will, including the bearing of children. Now, you tell me is it men or women who have lost their way?
    I'm all for positive action; so, why didn't Davies pull a group of fairly successful women together and ask them: What is driving you nuts about your job? How can it be changed so that women would feel accepted and comfortable? What would really help to draw out the best in you?
    Gender diversity does not mean - squeezing, training, hammering, pulling and pushing - to make women fit into unnatural circumstances, and please note that unnatural circumstances includes raping the earth, stealing resources, shafting the competition, spying on the competition...all these games that some men play and pay for with their souls.
    Lord Davies' next question should be: How do we get rid of the boardroom this unnatural box that boxes in creative thought?

  • Comment number 5.

    Jeez oh #4 this blogg lets me hark back to the good ole' days when HYS bloggs were rightly limited in content! With the additional ability to tick the box if you agreed with a fellow blogger! There's only one way to get rid of boardrooms, but if I was to mention the same word at a Uk airport, I might not get on the plane!!

  • Comment number 6.

    Does discrimination basically avoid the baby thing - for men and women?

    Post 04 'BluesBerry' makes excellent points - relevant to both men and women - whether parents or not. Many people, both men AND women have sacrificed and dedicated their whole life to their occupation and/or their employer.

    However, when you are old and alone - your employer will not hug, or care or even think about you.

    Do you work to live ... or do you live to work? Think very, very carefully; no employment legislation, or breaking glass ceilings or fake interviews will protect any man or woman from ultimate loneliness or isolation?


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