The emperor’s new clothes?

The 30% Club have set up a new cross-company mentoring programme for women

By Michelle Perry | Published 16:36, 28 May 14

With the government close to reaching its target of 25 percent of all board positions going to women by next year, it’s reassuring to hear of the 30% Club’s new mentoring scheme to help more women into executive posts.

With all the fanfare of nearing the 25 percent target – and almost ending all-male boards at the UK’s top 100 companies – it’s all starting to feel a bit like the emperor’s new clothes.

Yes, it’s a great goal to achieve. But isn’t it skimming over the surface of the problem? That women – for myriad reasons, few of them because of motherhood – are failing to gain the top jobs in business.

An unintended consequence of the push to hire more women onto boards has been the result of more and more women ‘going plural’ as it’s known in corporate circles, which means taking on several non-executive roles instead of seeking an executive role.

Anecdotally there is proof. Mark FitzPatrick, Deloitte vice chairman, who runs Deloitte’s CFO programme, tells me: “My biggest concern is that only 14 percent of people in the [Deloitte CFO] programme are women. I’m looking at people that are potentially three to four years away from becoming CFOs so the pipeline isn’t flowing.”

“Going plural means the corporate world is missing out on getting the talent at executive level for women.”

I can see the attraction. This route is well-paid, but with less responsibility, and probably less stress. Not to mention fewer working days.

Fees for non-executive roles have been rising steadily since 2009, according to research by PwC. There has been a 140 percent rise in FTSE 100 remuneration committee membership fees since 2009.

The average fee for a FTSE 100 non-executive role, if the individual sits on, say, the audit, remuneration and nominations committees as a member – not a chairman – is £96,000 a year.

That’s for just one role. Now if you had two or three of these, then financially I’d say you’d be pretty well set up for the rest of your career.

I’m not suggesting these are easy roles. On the contrary, they carry legal accountability, and are incredibly challenging.

But if you were an ambitious business woman struggling to break through to the executive level and you saw the chance of going plural, then you’d be forgiven for taking the route more open to you.

But what about the issue of leadership? Non-executives are there to influence the board but not manage the business. Will we end up with a corporate world where women are influencers, but not leaders?

There is much to be celebrated about the heady leap from just 12.5 percent of women on boards in 2010 when Lord Davies published his damning report on the lack of gender equality in British boardrooms. But as we approach the 2015 deadline and realise the unintended consequences, the government’s goal leaves me feeling flat. So back to the 30% Club’s new cross-company mentoring scheme.

The programme – aimed at mid-career women aged between 28 and 38 – is due to launch this September following a successful pilot. BAT, Centrica, Freshfields, GE, Marks & Spencer, Nomura, Pearson, Slaughter & May, BDO, EY and BNY Mellon are some of the companies already involved.

Helena Morrissey CBE, founder of the 30% Club and CEO of Newton Investment Management, says: “Each organisation participating in the mentoring pilot defined the pivot point for their organisations at which they see a divergence between career paths of men and women, inviting key women in this group to participate.

“Concerted efforts to tackle female executive progress will ensure that we get more women not just into business, but staying in business and reaching the top. Only then will we achieve meaningful and sustainable change.”

I will be watching keenly to see which other companies are signing up. I doubt, though, that Glencore – the last all-male board in the FTSE 100 – will be an early signatory.

For details on how organisations can join the mentoring scheme visit http://30percentclub.org/the-30-club-mentoring-scheme/

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