Monday, 30 April 2012

Milestone, millstone or the same old grindstone?

A good week for those who think that there aren't many high powered women in the construction and property sectors. Just two days after a packed audience at the RIBA listened to seven dynamic women talking about female power in architecture, there was full house to hear  editor Giles Barrie of Property Week announce the Women's Power List at an event organised by Women in Property to launch its 25th Anniversary celebrations.  

Not only has an impressive list of 100 top women in property been gathered, there are another 100 women nipping at their (high) heels. Quite a change from the last time the list was compiled, in 2006, when it was something of a challenge to identify 100 women in positions of influence.

Add to this the latest report from Cranfield School of Management, (Milestone or Millstone?) which shows an increase in the number of women holding board seats on FTSE 350 companies since the Lord Davies report, and one might be forgiven for thinking that we can coast all the way to transparency and equality in British boardrooms.  But as ever, it is not as simple as that, particularly in construction and property.
Professor Susan Vinnicombe

Professor Susan Vinnicombe, co-author of the Cranfield Report, is keynote speaker at the Women in Property event. She points out to the capacity audience, on the top floor of legal firm TaylornWessing's smart offices in the City of London, that there are significant moves in the right direction. The percentage of female board directors on FTSE 100 companies has risen to 15% from the three year plateau of 12.5%.  The number of companies with no women on the board has dropped to 11 and the number of companies with more than one woman on the board has increased to 50.

Professor Vinnicombe also points out that in the 12 months to January 2012, 29 of the 47 women who took up new roles on FTSE 100 boards have had no prior FTSE 350 board experience. "This represents a good addition to the talent pool, suggesting that the appointment process is beginning to open up to new women and Chairmen and ESFs are being a little more creative with their selection of candidates," she says.  

There is murmuring amongst some members of the audience, including me. We later compare experience over wine and canapes, with one highly qualified engineer with construction, housing and board experience recounting how she was told to produce three references from FTSE 100 companies before being considered as suitable non executive director material. As she points out, there aren't three construction companies in the FTSE 100. Others shared my experience, of being told recently that FTSE experience was the only way to get past first base.

So what is the profile of the women who have reached the boards of FTSE companies? The charts define them by skill set rather than sector, which makes it rather difficult to assess from a construction and property viewpoint. As ever, the majority have financial expertise (57% in the FTSE 100, 45% in the FTSE 250). In both groups, those women with strategy and marketing skill are the next highest group at 17%, with operations experience down the pecking order at 9% in the FTSE 100 group and 11% in the FTSE 250 group.

Even more interestingly, in the light of my observation that only one of the  seven women on the platform at the RIBA event came from the UK, the Cranfield report reveals that fewer women directors than men directors hold British nationality (55% compared with 65%) and North Americans (USA and Canada) hold 29% of the female directorships compared with 11% of the male directorships. 

But back to the Women in Property event. Professor Vinnicombe's concern is that of the 141 women holding 163 directorships in the FTSE100, only 20 are executive directors, despite the fact that there are plenty of women in the workplace. "Many companies seem to struggle to identify the women they employ at junior, middle and senior levels!" she tells us. " Others vary dramatically in the numbers of women at senior executive level. It is clear now that many major corporations are successful at attracting women at entry level, at developing them and retaining them after maternity leaves, but are still spectacularly unsuccessful at promoting them to executive level."

So how will it be done? Let's hear from the powerful executive women on the platform, with their top tips for success:
Woman at the top: Alison Nimmo heads up Crown Estates

Alison Nimmo, Chief Executive of Crown Estates. "We must dispel the myth that there isn't talent. Women must overcome the fear of failure and just go for it - jumping in the deep end is good." 

Rebecca Worthington, Finance Director at Quintain. "You have to play to your strengths and take ownership."

Jenefer Greenwood,   Retail Strategist at Grosvenor Estates. "Find something you are good at, spot opportunities and take advantage of being unique (everyone knew me because I was the only woman). Women are good at the nitty gritty, but no good at blowing their own trumpet."
Lynda Shillaw, Lloyds Banking Group

Lynda Shillaw,  Managing Director, corporate real estate at Lloyds Banking Group. " I took  on every job in male dominated industry and had amazing runs of luck with great men mentors. Choose your battles!"

So nothing new there then, is it simply down to the women to keep grinding away, relying on doing a job really well and being recognised in the end?  The debate turns to the controversial issue of targets and quotas. Professor Vinnicombe refers to the resistance amongst women and men to setting quotas for women in boardrooms, based on an assumption that this will result in appointing mediocre women and encourage tokenism. Only 11% of women surveyed agreed with the idea of quotas, with women already on boards often being the most vociferously against the proposal. Cartoonist Alex in the Sunday Telegraph sums up the attitude rather well.

Conscious of this resistance,  the Davies Report held back from quotas and required that Chairmen should announce their aspirational targets for women on boards by September 2011.  As Professor Vinnicombe tells us, by the Interim Report published in October 2011, only 33 companies had set out their targets. So in January 2012 the Company Secretaries of all FTSE 350 companies were asked for an update. Of the 70 FTSE 100 companies responding,  the number with declared aspirational targets rose to 38, nine stated categorically that they will not be setting targets and the  remaining 23 were supportive but noncommittal.

But it seems as if the tide is turning with regard to quotas.  The phrase, "I don't like the idea but it seems to be the only way," is increasingly being heard, including from the EU's Justice Minister Vivian Reding who launched a consultation on the issue in March. (Deadline is 28 May for submissions.)

In the meantime, let's take heart from the impressive 200 women listed in Property Week and leave the fight for seats on FTSE 350 companies to women from US, Canada or Australia. Or you could do what the architect friend of a fellow delegate at the Women in Property event did - switch to accountancy and reach the board as finance director. 

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