Frances Dickens: Should “pale males” be driving boardroom gender diversity?


It’s time to lead by example, says Astus CEO Frances Dickens

I was struck by a headline this week that read: “City Grandees In Frame To Lead Diversity Push.” The story behind the headline is about the shortlist for candidates to succeed Lord Davies in chairing the influential review into Women on Boards as it enters the next phase. With the term “City grandees” rarely going hand-in-hand with “female/ from an ethnic minority,” I was fairly certain the candidates would be male and white.

Sure enough the two grandees apparently under consideration are Sir Philip Hampton and Robert Swannell, respectively the chairmen of GSK and M&S. Now Sir Philip and Mr Swannell are clearly supremely well qualified and sufficiently high profile to continue the excellent work started by Lord Davies. Being pale and male did not stop him providing a much-needed momentum behind business-led moves to greater boardroom diversity.

Without his persistence and fearlessness in naming and shaming laggards (Glencore anyone?), I doubt the target of 25% female board representation on FTSE 100 boards would have been met. It’s also encouraging that the issue of boardroom gender diversity is sufficiently important for such well-known names to be in the frame for succeeding Davies. And there is definitely an argument to be made that when it comes to persuading the chief executives/boards of the FTSE 350 companies to improve boardroom diversity, the message is more powerful when it comes from – well –  one of their own. After all there are only 16 women CEOS in the FTSE 350 according to the CBI.

That said, I can’t help hoping that a few high profile female names that maybe haven’t made it into the press are nonetheless being considered by Number 10 – not least because it sends the right signal to the City in terms of leading by example: less “do as we ask” more “do as we do.” After all this is the government that gave us Sajid Javid as Business Secretary and Anna Soubry as minister for small business.

Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI’s first female director general has just provided a great illustration of how high profile women can provide an effective rallying cry when it comes to championing gender diversity at senior levels within companies. Her call for the successor to the Davies Review to set a new voluntary target for women to hold 25% of leadership roles in major UK companies is absolutely on the money and proves she is an invaluable addition to the cause of business led change around gender diversity.

Whoever ends up replacing Lord Davies will have big shoes to fill. Top of their to-do list is the need to address female representation on the boards of IPOs. Following news that companies including insurers Hastings and payment processing company Worldpay were preparing for flotations worth billions without female board representation, Financial News recently reported that the number of female board members on companies being listed for the first time has dropped to 10.1% lower than in 2014 and 2013. It is unacceptable for companies in this day and age to be able to list without a woman on the board and Davies’ successor needs to tackle any remaining apathy on this issue among institutional investors or elsewhere within the City, head on. It’s a lot to ask of a role that is reportedly part-time and unpaid. Let’s hope whoever is appointed is woman enough for the job.

Frances Dickens is CEO of Astus Group

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