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Dr Cable And Engaging UK plc On #Diversity On Boards

Posted on September 3, 2013 at 5:00 PM

I have new insight into what it is like to be Vince Cable, UK Business Secretary, trying to bring about what is considered in the UK  to be 'seismic change' when it comes to the progression of women in business - on boards as non-executive directors, and as part of an executive team.

I have to say I do not envy him.

At the very start of a roundtable discussion this afternoon with members of the business community- one of many held by the Department of Business to look at this issue - Dr Cable asked: 'Where would you go from here if you were me?'

I was taken aback by both the honesty of the question - and the sheer potential for an innovative response of some capacity. But, judging by what I heard (as an invited 'fly on the wall') I cannot say the same for the financial services institutions represented. They included HSBC, Lloyds Bank, London Stock Exchange, Standard Chartered, RBS, Standard Life, Resolution, Direct Line and more.

Let's just establish a few facts first for the UK (The stats are from BIS as of today, the opinion is mine):


  • We are not doing badly compared to many countries: as of August 2013, 94% of FTSE100 boards have female representation
  • BUT break it down - women account for 22%of non-executive directorships and 5.6% of executive directorships
  • We were doing quite well w/momentum until March 1, 2013; since then women have accounted for 12% of all board appointments - 0% of new executive directors are women
  • FTSE250 is a pleasant surprise: since March 1, 2013 39% of new NED roles have been secured by women and 50% executive directorships have gone to women
  • FTSE250: 76% of boards now have female representation

As Dr Cable said at the start, we are trying in the UK to change gender balance "through persuasion rather than quotas." He did also make it clear later that it is diversity in its broadest sense - of perspective, ethnicity, representation, that the government would like to see business embrace at the top - and all the way up as well.
But for the purposes of today's discussion, we were discussing gender - and the boardroom.

Or so I thought. There appeared to be a tendency to digress towards talk of the 'difficulty of building a pipeline' which inevitably brought up how women (somehow automatically ) = maternity and babies, and flexible working - or 'agile working' (apparently new preferred term by some banks as it means not contractual and less process as well...) and then there's aspiration, and self-belief (or lack of it) and role models.....yawn.

There was a great contribution by Tim Jones from the London Stock Exchange, who said: 'We pay gold-plated packages for people to leave - maybe it's time we concentrated on the other end, maternity and paternity (packages) to make them stay.'

But it stood out. My overall impression form the roundtable was that the complacency of business is astonishing.

Perhaps, instead of attempting open-ended engagement Dr Cable should have said: 'The EU is going to make you financial services companies have a certain number of women on your boards. Soon. Where do you think you will find them?' That's what I would have done - which is why I am not a politican.

So the talk was of networks, and flexible working, and networks, and change, and going into schools to make sure we start at the right place on aspiration and GCSE choices and how women don't want the pressure of financial services and how it's all the fault of regulation...and just every now and then a few phrases leapt out that got me excited. Here they are, without attribution  - I know who said them, but I don't think it is helpful to say (and it's late and I'm tired)

  • Is it the perception of the NED role that has to change (in order for us to fill it differently) ?
  • The way the (exec) role is defined will have to change as many men want to be home (to bath two sons aged 5 nd 7 and then pick it up again said one senior FS man) 
  • We need to marry the best of creativity and outside experience into financial services - how do we do it ?
  • CBI emphasised the need for healthy 'cross-over' among industry sectors
  • You can actually fill NED positions if you settle for candidates 'a level below where you might have done in the past'
  • There is great merit in keeping the debate more broadly on 'diversity' than just 'gender'

That's about the gist of it. 

There was another question from Dr Cable that I feel was completely wasted in terms of the response.
He asked - and genuinely seemed to want to know - if headhunters were doing enough?

The rumblings were all around the 'voluntary code' being merely a 'terms of engagement' with a few anecdotes about headhunter experiences. Then we had the man who proudly recalled using the same female headhunter for all his searches in various financial roles across the City - "and she always came up trumps !'

Dear, oh dear. And then they tell you they can't find suitable candidates because the 'pool' - which they - and their headhunters dictate - is so small. 

Let's be clear - I am talking about non-executive directors for boards. I am pretty sure the Business Secretary was as well. But attention at the roundtable today appeared to wander.

And as for any sense of urgency that if UK plc does not get its act together and think more boldly about how to place more clever and useful women in its boardrooms, the EU will dictate it ...well, based on the Centrepoint roundtable briefing this afternoon, I would say there is no sense of urgency. 

But it isn't for lack of trying on the part of either BIS or the CBI. At this stage my verdict is UK plc will get what it deserves from the EU if it is not careful. What we need is for individual businesses to come up with some bold and creative ideas, proving they understand thinking about competitive advantage.


Categories: Women, Engagement, Appointments