Boards need more women – mine too

First published in the Financial Times on 29th April 2014.

Boardrooms devoid of female insight are surely lacking market knowledge

Why are there only four female chief executives in Britain’s top 100 companies? Do the other 96 boardrooms dislike women?The curious fact is that most large companies I know are desperate to appoint women to their boards. A whole industry has sprung up in recent years helping organisations become more diverse in their leadership mix. Yet at the very top, it seems corporates either do not want – or cannot find – female talent to help balance out the sexes.

There are women being appointed to big company boards, but most of them are non-executives. Those board members have a certain amount of influence, but nothing like the power of the executives who control the levers. Business needs more female bosses.

There are threats to force corporates to appoint women as directors – a quota of 25 per cent has been mooted. Women-only shortlists might become obligatory. This sounds a bad idea, because candidates may be appointed not on the basis of merit, but their gender. And that could undermine their effectiveness. But retaining the status quo, with an overwhelming dominance of middle-aged men in charge, seems equally unsatisfactory. There is no easy solution.

I was interviewed on television last week and was asked why we had no women on the board of Patisserie Holdings, the company we plan to take public next month. It was a fair criticism. We are looking, and if there are any suitable candidates, please drop me a line. We did offer a non-executive role to an impressive female candidate – but her (male) boss said she could not accept it.

There are compelling reasons to appoint more women leaders. This perspective is not political correctness in action, but pure economics. Women make most purchasing decisions; they also have the most financial assets. So they are probably the majority of customers for a high proportion of companies. Moreover, if all senior executives are men, as is so often the case, do management really know how their key customers think? Boards devoid of female insight are surely lacking true knowledge of their markets.

Perhaps not enough women want the jobs at the top. I suspect many smart women opt out at some point, realising that the rat race is mostly a foolish alpha male game that all too often only delivers heart attacks, disappointment and an arid personal life. Obtaining work/life balance while holding down a role running a company with billions in revenue and many thousands of staff must be very challenging.

Women can be just as ambitious as men to achieve career success, but most also have maternal instincts – which can lead to conflicts over priorities in life. According to some, such as Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, women need to “lean in” and seize opportunities – a contented home life and a soaring working life are possible.

I sat as one of the few male judges on the annual Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Awards recently. Too many of the shortlisted candidates lacked substance, or were the daughters or wives of rich and famous men. And some high- achieving women had made it clear they would be unable to attend if picked. But we came up with three excellent finalists: the winner is announced on May 12.

I did at least propose to my fellow judges at the FT Boldness in Business Awards that Moya Greene, CEO of Royal Mail, should be Person of the Year for 2014 – and they agreed unanimously. She did a fantastic job managing the unions, politicians and media and floating the business last year. It was an almost impossible task to reconcile demands from all the competing stakeholders – and sell a declining business such as post and parcel delivery to the stock market – but she pulled it off.

The commercial arena where women are clearly having a growing and prominent impact is in entrepreneurship. Already about 20 per cent of new companies in Britain are founded by women: I expect this proportion to grow sharply.

And if this is the era of start-ups and enterprise, rather than the age of corporates, then women in business are playing an intelligent game. Better to be your own boss than working for the Man.