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Women On Boards: The Illusion Of Change

Posted on April 7, 2013 at 7:35 PM

I launched this blog on February 7, 2011 - Lord Davies was looking into why there was such a serious lack of women in the boardrooms of UK plc and I needed a platform to express my views. I also thought the general level of debate in the media around 'glass ceilings' was shockingly banal.

Having been a headhunter and worked with many of the people who make the decisions at this level, I had some unique insights. I had also only recently made a re-entry into journalism and started to write for the Financial Times as a freelance. 

I have never understood why headhunting as an industry is not regulated - or at least scrutinised far more than it is - the fees are enormous which means it is a major cost to business, the industry has made an art out of shrouding itself in mystique and - dare I say it - of exploiting connections in the corridoors of power that go all the way back to university.

Fact: headhunters are allowed to do board evaluations and also find the people on the board. How absurd is that ?

I was careful how often I went down this route, because shrieking is not a good plan when you want to achieve anything. I also did not want to blow my own head off - and I was aware that many - by no means all - headhunters were very wary of me. But if you go back to the early posts in this blog you will see that I was always sceptical about how much Lord Davies seemed to rely on their goodwill.

Now - just ahead of the publication of the latest report on the subject by the Cranfield School of Management, the government's official monitor of women on boards, Professor Susan Vinnicombe has found her critical voice, and decided to leak it to The Telegraph.

Apparently the report is to say that most FTSE 100 firms are still not casting the net wide enough, nor are they willing to consider hiring people who break the mould of direct, sector-relevant experience.

The Telegraph quotes Ms Vinnicombe:

"Lord Davies says chairman have got it. A small number have, but an awful lot haven't. Most search consultants are still singing the tune that there aren't enough suitable women out there. Many chairmen and headhunters are still not valuing independent experience or anyone who comes from outside the mainstream."

There is really nothing more to say. Except -all that talk and time spent in two years - and where are we ?

I'll tell you where - the only thing that has happened is a raised level of debate and a raised level of demand. There is a new feminism out there - you can see it in the encouragement of 'role models'  and the visibility of the stories. The media has a very important part to play, as do individual plcs.

So it has come to the point where The Telegraph  names five "women to watch" today (based on interviews with headhunters, business organisations and academics). Maybe a chairman sitting in the spring sunshine will see one and find out more - is that the plan ?

But f the headhunting system is 'off bounds' to be broken and remade, then we need to start working outside it.

One of the recommendations made this month by the LAPPF in its call (mentioned in this blog) for an overhaul on executive pay is the following:

"Looking at recruitment, LAPFF believes the market for executive directors is distorted and far less open than it should be. The Forum calls for greater transparency and for companies to consider a broader pool of candidates. LAPFF has recommended that companies publicly advertise all new executive director positions and provide a transparent and equal opportunity recruitment process." (my emphasis).

Why on earth would we not do that ? 

The feel-good factor in this initiative launched two years ago is fading very fast. 

Categories: Women, Appointments, Chairmen