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Wednesday, 17 October, 2001, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Women bosses an endangered species
Boardroom graphic
Identical men in ties: a typical British board
By BBC News Online's James Arnold

"This has been a good year for women in business. The glass ceiling has cracked," crowed the Evening Standard.

Five years ago to the day, amid a blaze of breathless publicity, Marjorie Scardino was named chief executive of media group Pearson, becoming the first woman ever to take the helm of a FTSE-100 company.

Ms Scardino's appointment, it was felt, heralded a wholesale female invasion of the boardroom, the first step in overturning the established sexism of corporate Britain.

Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino
Marjorie Scardino: Five years on and still alone

But five years on, the number of female bosses in companies included within the FTSE 100 index can be counted on one hand - in fact, on one finger.

Ms Scardino remains in place, but no woman has repeated her achievement.

And while women executives have shown encouraging signs of making headway further down the corporate ladder, some experts fear that true equality in the board room may remain out of reach forever.

Women triumph...

Of course, progress has been made; there is no shortage of statistics showing that women are figuring more highly in the boardroom.

Camelot chief executive Dianne Thompson
Camelot's Dianne Thompson is a rare woman boss

A survey last month from the Institute of Management showed that 25% of UK managers are now female, up from only 9% a decade ago.

And one in 10 of those female managers is now at board level, a fivefold increase on 1990 levels.

Although Ms Scardino is the only female FTSE 100 chief, other women have made it to the top, including Clara Furse at the London Stock Exchange, and Dianne Thompson, the boss of lottery operator Camelot.

Women are making their presence felt most strongly at Britain's biggest companies, according to Val Singh of the Cranfield School of Management, who compiles the "Female FTSE" index of women in business.

Now, 68% of Britain's 50 largest companies have women on their board, compared with 48% of the next-biggest 50 firms.

In middle management, the breeding ground for the next generation of corporate leaders, women are getting involved in "considerable numbers", Dr Singh says.

... or possibly not

But statistics being what they are, it is equally easy to spin a negative picture.

Only 2% of executive directors in the UK are female, a figure that compares with the US.

Until women go from Page 3 to Page 1, things won't improve

Glenda Stone,

But in the US, 84% of Fortune 500 companies have women on their board - implying high female representation among non-executive directors, still largely a male preserve in the UK.

And while more women may be winning better jobs these days, they are still not being compensated adequately.

Recent research from the University of Essex showed that women tended to get lower pay rises on promotion than their male colleagues - leading to a phenomenon that the university called the "sticky floor".

According to UK government statistics, skilled women earn 380,000 less during their careers than equally qualified men.

Sexism and the City

Given the social and legislative pressure for equal rights, how can this be?

Part of the reason, unsurprisingly, is old-fashioned sexism.

"Until women go from Page 3 to Page 1, things will not improve," says Glenda Stone, founder of Busygirl, a network that aims to promote the economic advancement of women.

Former Mattel chief executive Jill Barad
Mattel's Barad helped tarnish the reputation of female bosses

But some also blame corporate nervousness after a series of unsuccessful women bosses in the US.

Jill Barad was forced out of the top job at toy maker Mattel last year after making one of the worst acquisitions in corporate history.

Even more harmful was Linda Wachner, America's first Fortune 500 female boss, whose high-handed management style was blamed for the bankruptcy of clothing company Warnaco in June.

Could try harder

Some also lay part of the blame at the door of women themselves.

The glass ceiling has only shifted upwards

Val Singh, Cranfield School of Management

Women are still not as focused on their careers from an early enough age: five times as many men as women qualified with degrees in engineering or technology last year, for example.

And, says Ms Stone, they have a fatal tendency to make unfavourable career choices. Working in the PR department of a manufacturing company is no route to the top; far more sensible to do the same thing in a PR company.

Dr Singh says her research indicates that women emphasise the skills they need to do their jobs, but often neglect the networking abilities they need to reach the very top.

This helps account for the fact that women account for 2% of company bosses almost everywhere in the world, no matter how deeply they have penetrated the lower rungs of business.

"The glass ceiling has only shifted upwards," Dr Singh says.

Companies creep up

Things could be worse.

PM's question time in parliament
Count the women

This represents slim compensation, perhaps, but the recent improvements at least mean that corporations are no worse than most other major employers.

Only one-quarter of British lawyers, for example, are female, and just one in eight MPs is a woman - a number that fell at the last election for the first time since the 1970s.

Seven out of the 23 cabinet members are female, but among the dozens of government departments, only three out of 22 permanent secretaries - the most senior civil servants - are women.

Even the much vaunted internet economy, which was supposed to break down the established hierarchy, is reckoned to be just as male-dominated as the old corporate world.

"Some professions are still completely misogynistic - I would point to medicine as an example," says Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors.

Shining examples

And a few companies have genuinely started to make an effort to promote women's workplace rights.

A pregnant woman
Welcome at PwC

Pretty much every major company has a "diversity programme" of some sort in place, but only a handful make a point of monitoring the results, and tweaking their practices in response to their staff.

The leaders here tended to be among City financial institutions, whose reputation has been damaged by a series of sexual-discrimination scandals.

Consulting firms - wholly dependent on attracting and retaining key staff - have also made great strides.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, has introduced a raft of women-friendly measures, including flexitime, favourable parental leave arrangements, grants for childcare and even subsidies for breast-feeding equipment.

Strangled at birth?

Weary campaigners have pretty much grown used to anticipating piecemeal improvements like these, rather than a wholesale boardroom revolution.

There's more to life than being a FTSE-100 executive

Ruth Lea, Institute of Directors

But there is now a growing worry that the current straitened economic circumstances could reverse the few gains seen so far.

Dr Singh, who is currently working on the second publication of the Female FTSE index, says it already seems that female director numbers have dwindled this year.

And things could get worse.

Many companies have announced sweeping redundancy programmes, which are likely to hit middle management disproportionately - and might decimate the next embryo generation of female executives.

Family matters

Research suggests that women are far more likely than men to take voluntary redundancy, in order to take advantage of the opportunity to start a family.

And Dr Singh says that bosses are generally happier to cut female staff than male, because men are more likely to be the main bread-winner in a family.

Some suggest that an escape from the rat race - albeit involuntary - might come as a relief to some.

"There's more to life than being a FTSE-100 executive," says Ruth Lea.

Working women had better hope so.

Women in the workplaceWomen bosses
Are women being held back at work?
See also:

17 Oct 01 | Business
Tech slump hits takings at Pearson
25 Sep 01 | Business
Women fail to reap promotion rewards
04 Sep 01 | Business
Profile: HP's Carly Fiorina
30 Jul 01 | Business
Pearson rules out FT redundancies
28 Jun 01 | Business
Dot.coms 'as sexist as not.coms'
12 Jun 01 | Business
Warnaco files for bankruptcy
10 Apr 01 | Business
Laddism and the City
01 Mar 01 | Business
Europe's top women
24 Jan 01 | Business
New boss for London Stock Exchange
24 Jan 01 | Business
Clara Furse: A profile
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