Sunday, 30 November 2008

Critical mass, leaky pipeline or your own canoe?

Some fascinating contrasts are revealed in the latest report about women in the boardroom. Ten years on from the first Cranfield Female FTSE Report, the number of directorships held by women on FTSE 100 corporate boards has risen by only five percentage points, from 7% in 1999 to 12% this year.

But there is good news too, and some intriguing findings for women working in the non-traditional workplace. Whilst 22 companies in the index have no women at all on their boards, some of the others who do, want more of them. Report co-author Ruth Sealey comments, “In comparison to the 1999 figures, the most significant increase is in the number of companies with multiple women on their boards – 39 of the FTSE 100.”

She continues, “It is only once a critical mass of women in the boardroom is attained that real culture change can occur.”

That’s fine and dandy, but the critical mass argument doesn’t seem to be working down the pipeline. Despite women achieving 50% (or more) representation in medicine, law and accountancy, the cry goes up regularly that there are far too few at the top of their profession.

What’s more, according to the Cranfield report, some companies working in industries with relatively few women in the workforce have a higher number of women on their boards than those with lots. Surprisingly, it is the oil, gas, mining and electricity industries that have more women in their top executive posts than sectors like retail. So where are we now on the critical mass versus leaky pipeline argument?

It is often put forward that the reason there are so few women at the top is because they don’t want to rise into the heady and ruthless stratosphere of the corporate world and the ranks of the great and good. They are lost through that leaky pipeline, choosing to re-train or change career direction, often setting up their own business.

But I can throw another surprise into the mix. Preparing a speech for the launch of a new satellite branch of the dynamic network Women in Property, I found an interesting common denominator amongst the women breaking down the bastions at the top of very traditional, professional institutions. They have all chosen to paddle their own canoes, running successful businesses, bringing up families and yet keeping on the radar screen for advancement.

They are: President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (Dr Jean Venables OBE), past President of the Institution of Mechnical Engineers (Pam Liversidge OBE), President of the Royal Town Planning (Janet O’Neill) and President-Elect of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Ruth Reed).

Views are invited on how women reach the top – and what companies should do about it.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Making history on both sides of The Pond

On Tuesday 4 November 2008, whilst Americans across the USA were voting for their first black President, another historic event was taking place in the UK. Dr Jean Venables OBE was inaugurated as the first woman president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in its 190-year-old history.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to be one of the capacity audience in the imposing ICE headquarters building in Westminster to hear Jean deliver her presidential address. She pledged action on climate change, putting engineers right at the heart of infrastructure policy decision making, advising government every step of the way.

"We need to take the risk of taking decisions –now," she said, with calm authority. "We have got to engender the same sense of urgency and importance about climate change that the recent banking crisis has had."

A leading engineer in the field of flood risk management – for which she was awarded the OBE in 2004 - Jean has combined her engineering career with running a successful consultancy with her husband Professor Roger Venables and bringing up two sons. She has an impressive portfolio of appointments and awards, including Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering, visiting lectureships at Imperial College and Southampton University, and Chairmanship of the Thames Estuary partnership.

Told at school that ‘girls don’t do engineering’, Jean discovered that this was indeed the case when she arrived at Imperial College to be one of only two women studying civil engineering that year. As she commented in her address, "Considering I was only the 16th woman to become a Chartered Member of the ICE and the 12th to become a Fellow, it’s not surprising there’s never been a women president."

"ICE currently has only 8% female membership across all grades, so clearly there is much to be done to get more women into civil engineering. However, the landscape is already changing with 20% of the student and graduate member grades being women."

An important step in this direction was demonstrated when Jean introduced her President’s Apprentices – five young graduate members of ICE chosen to work closely with her throughout the year. They will gain an invaluable insight into the role of a senior engineer and the workings of the institution. Three of the five are young women.

A salutary tale

Sitting two along in the Great Hall, at the inauguration of Jean Venables OBE as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, was another rare female of the species FICE (Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Civil Engineers). She told my husband the following tale, after being impressed by his feminist credentials (he was a fellow student of Jean Venables in the sixties and fought alongside her to stop the habit of the City and Guilds Association of allowing only one woman - the President’s wife - to attend their official events).

When she became a Chartered Civil Engineer, said our new friend, she was taken aback that the letter confirming her achievement was addressed to ‘Mr’. Her request that this be changed to ‘Miss’ was refused by the female ICE staff member, who pointed out that as only two of the 1500 newly chartered individuals were female it was not worth changing the usual salutation.

It was only when the newly fledged CEng pointed out that her local authority employer was refusing to grant the increased salary that Chartership brings, on the grounds that the letter clearly couldn’t be referring to her, that the august body produced a correctly addressed letter.