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Women on boards debate: Banking crisis ‘helped women stake place in the boardroom’

Don’t take a back seat: Cherie Booth QC

05 September 2012

The banking meltdown advanced the cause of women in business because it forced bosses to appreciate they need “fewer Bob Diamonds” and more voices challenging “macho culture”, said a leading City fund manager.

Speaking at a debate on women in the boardroom, sponsored by the Evening Standard, Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment, said: “We have travelled a huge way and the real driver is the financial crisis.”

The mother of nine was sharing a panel with barrister and part-time judge Cherie Booth QC; Jasmine Whitbread, boss of Save the Children International; BBC chief operating officer Caroline Thomson and Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway.

Ms Morrissey claimed that the credit crunch which brought the global financial system to its knees may not have been so severe if there had been “more women at the top and on trading floors and in M&A [mergers and acquisitions]”.

She said the crisis had made company leaders realise that having “different types of people making decisions, challenging each other and creating the right culture” could help avoid such catastrophes in future.

When Royal Bank of Scotland almost collapsed and had to be bailed out, 17 out of 18 board members were male and many were part of a tight-knit “Edinburgh mafia”, she added.

But the debate, at Google’s offices in Central St Giles, revealed splits over whether there should be legally binding quotas to boost female representation in the boardroom. Ms Booth insisted the “glass ceiling” was still intact and urged people to “stop being defensive” about quotas: “If anyone in this room thinks everything is alright for women in the UK, I’m afraid they are sadly misguided. I don’t want to be depressing about this because there has been huge progress, but still there is a persistent gender pay gap, we still have the glass ceiling. We are under-represented in law, in politics and in business.”

She said she would prefer not to resort to legally binding quotas, but they might be unavoidable: “Let’s be honest. We have been waiting a long time for this … How much longer are we going to have to talk about this before we make a change?” She disagreed that quotas were discriminatory, but were “about increasing the pool of talent and making sure that talent rises to the top”.

Ms Booth claimed that many “mediocre” men went a long way, but responding to the suggestion that Alpha women needed Beta men to support them, the wife of former premier Tony Blair joked: “Who is Beta in our house?”

She added: “There are times in your career when you are both aspiring to be Alphas when one or the other of you is going to have to take a back seat, but that doesn’t mean you have to take a back seat forever.”

‘We’re still fighting deep-rooted stereotypes’

Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times Columnist

The majority of board members are non-executives. It is an important role but irrelevant compared with what happens at executive level. To get women executives coming through your ranks is really, really hard. My fear is that by concentrating on the easy-peasy bit we are neglecting the difficult bit that matters. Alpha women needing Beta men… of all the extraordinary women in the world, almost all had husbands who were not extraordinary at all.

Cherie Booth QC

Who is Beta in our house? There are times in your career when you are both aspiring to be Alphas when one or the other is going to have to take a back seat, but that doesn’t mean you have to take a back seat forever.

I still think women need to do more about their confidence. Often we are more apologetic for our talents, however great they may be, whereas men tend to be proud of their fairly limited talents. It is often the women who take the career break at a time when the men are putting their foot down on the accelerator.

Jasmine Whitbread, Chief executive, Save the Children International

We now expect there to be women Olympians and they are also making their way onto the governance side.We have to … make the most of the momentum. We need to keep talking about it until it becomes a non-issue.

There are fewer women at the top table, even though, typically, women do very well in the early stages of their careers. We are living with very deep-rooted gender stereotypes. We kid ourselves if we don’t think that.

Caroline Thomson, BBC Chief Operating Officer

There is a profound issue about how you get more women on boards and it is about changing the culture. You can’t think that by having targets, succession plans and training plans that you have somehow fixed it, that you can sit back and relax.

We just need to keep sensitive and keep the measures in place … You are quite vulnerable at the top to one or two big shifts of people. We need to recognise there is a long-term culture change needed. We need to keep our eye on the ball.

Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment

Many companies are quite determined to make changes. When I talk to the same chairmen who initially turned me down… many of those people are now saying we are seeing the difference having more women has made to our board culture.

The Davis Review put the onus on us all to do something rather than just legislating. Substituting one form of discrimination with another is not the right way. We have got to change the dynamic. It has to be men and women working together. Companies have to play their part.
Your Say

Julia Stafford, who runs Wine Pantry and quit her job in the City after hitting the glass ceiling, said: “A lot of people are put off training women because they think they are going to go off and have children. We should take on that responsibility and start to train other women.”

Josie Rourke, Donmar Warehouse artistic director, wished the debate had gone on longer: “If we could have carried on until 2am we would have heard extraordinary things.”

Author Kate Mosse said: “There was a range of opinion, which meant there was potential to go away and think about things.”

Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet, said she could relate to Lucy Kellaway’s comment about not using “extraordinary” to describe successful women. “It should be so ordinary. We confront these issues every day in our lives.”

Professor Lisa Jardine however, said the debate had been full of the “classic codswallop” that often emerges at debates about women at the top. She added: “The room was full of people who can, who are and who will, but all we were getting was whinge, whinge, whinge about why we can’t do this.”