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Women In Powerful Positions: A Small Snapshot

Posted on January 28, 2016 at 10:00 AM

It isn't very surprising that women often don't make it into positions of power and visibility. Put an intelligent woman at the top and there is no telling what she might say or do....challenge is deeply feared when there are entrenched ways of thinking that are essentially self-serving.

I give you two examples.

Since January 1st, Oxford has a new Vice Chancellor - Louise Richardson - the first woman to hold the position in 800 years of university records.

Louise Richardson, Oxford University VC January 2016

Just a fortnight into her role, she spoke her mind. The FT headline read: New Oxford Vice-Chancellor Calls Bullingdon Club 'Unacceptable' , but then there was a curious little flurry on Twitter from FT journalists after I tweeted the story having added 'female' before 'Vice-Chancellor.'


No paywall (yet) so here's The Guardian version - which amusingly (and in my opinion quite rightly) puts the Bullingdon Club bit of the report at the end, and doesn't make it the headline.

"The newly appointed vice-chancellor, who is seen as a modernising figure, also labelled the all-male Bullingdon Club, which boasts David Cameron among its former members, as “completely unacceptable”.

She told the Financial Times there was no formal link between Oxford and the Bullingdon Club but stressed: “If it had I would sever it or I would do my best to sever it.”

She said that regardless of gender, “anybody who goes out and smashes up any restaurant, I would think it’s completely unacceptable”.

Ask the average person on the street, and I think they would agree. So why the FT emphasis ? Can it be that the media 'establishment' just loves to highlight a possible confrontation between a newly appointed woman and the powers that be ? Rhetorical questions are one thing - I couldn't possibly comment.

Second snapshot: Britain's powerful business lobby, the CBI, has a new (female) Director-General, Carolyn Fairbairn. Again, she's the first woman to hold the position.

Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director General 2016

Yesterday, speaking at an event hosted by law firm Latham & Watkins in London, she drew attention to the fact that the number of FTSE 100 female executive directors still represents less than 10%, despite the significant progress made by the Davies Review.

Emphasising the importance of looking “beyond boards” to executive roles, she urged chief executives to do even more to help capable women progress from entry-level to senior management positions.

Placating everyone first by telling them what a good job they had been doing so far, she was nevertheless blunt. She said: (my emphasis)

“We don’t have enough women running things and it is not getting better anything like fast enough.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that developing more women leaders will make a real difference to the success of the UK economy, our productivity and the UK’s future place in the world.

“Diverse voices – people of different genders, from different parts of the world, and of different lifestyles, ages, sexuality, religion, physical and mental health capabilities – enable better business decisions.”

Wasting no time in her new role, Ms Fairbairn added:

"I think the UK business world is not changing fast enough. Too much of UK business is still geared up for men, in terms of its social habits, its small talk, its clubbiness.


“The availability of childcare, flexible working arrangements and support in caring for elderly parents are part of this.”

Under her leadership, the CBI is now calling for new voluntary targets of 25% for female senior executives in major UK companies.

I had lunch with a professional woman recently which quite put me off my food. She spoke of applications for a top position. "You can smell the fear when you tell the men you might throw your hat into the ring" she said. With that sort of atmosphere, it's a brave woman who dares to push herself forward.

You might want to read two recent reports about women covered by me this week on Forbes - a global look at the state of play for professional women from Mercer, and a report from New Financial LLP on women in Europe's capital markets.


Categories: Appointments, Women, Behaviour