‘Women bring us back to the customer’

Kirsty Davies reports on a debate on the role and rewards of women in the workplace

Six out of ten graduates from University are female.  Women make up 51 per cent of the population and 46 per cent of the economically active workforce.  Women control 70 per cent of spending. Yet despite these statistics only 7 per cent of the board members of our top 350 FTSE companies are women. This means that our top companies do not reflect their workforces or their customers.

As Lord Davies of Abersoch, author of February’s independent report Women on Boards produced for Business Secretary Vince Cable, put it, speaking at a conference in Cardiff’s Swalec Stadium this week:

“We should be ashamed of the fact that we don’t have equality in our board rooms, ashamed. We need to make sure that we are not laggards in this or we will lose the competitive advantage, this is not about gender inequality, it is about better business performance.”

Lord Davies added that “the nature of a conversation changes when a woman is present.” Dyfrig John, Chair of the Principality Building Society, another speaker at the conference, agreed:

“Women bring a balance, women always bring us back to the customer.”

However, it is worth noting who is on which pay scale at the Principality. Of lower paid members of staff are 80 per cent are female. Women make up  50 per cent of those on middle pay grade, but only 20 per cent of those on the upper pay grade.

Rachel Lomax, Permanent Secretary at the Welsh Office when the National Assembly was set up, told the conference that working patterns haven’t adapted to the fact that major demands on women’s career peak during their child rearing years. Commenting on quotas she said:

“I would hate to be appointed on a quota, appointments must be made on merit.  Having said that, the definition of merit is too narrow.”

Ann Beynon, Chief Executive of BT said the way we work needs to be reengineered.  At BT 80 per cent of the work force, both women and men, work flexibly. With this being the case there is no stigma attached to flexible working. Mary Burrows, Chief Executive of north Wales’ Betsi Cadwalader University Health Board said that the public sector has a lot to teach the private sector about equality on boards. She added that women bring a different dynamic, emotional intelligence, and the ability to grant autonomy, trust and empowerment to enable change.

With such a large public sector in Wales  we are well placed to lead the way in gender equality on boards and indeed in upper management. With so many female AMs as role models, we ought to be able to take a lead on this issue. However, the reality is that there only two chief executives of Wales’ top 50 companies are women. This is despite evidence that inclusive and diverse board are more likely to be profitable and better able to understand their markets.  Lord Davies review shows that European companies are more likely to succeed when there is a higher proportion of women on the board.

Lord Davies proposed three ways of addressing the issue:

  1. Institutional shareholders need to be made aware of the problem and sign up to dealing with it.
  2. Head hunters must follow a code of practice to make sure that they are long and shortlisting the broadest and most inclusive range of talent.
  3. Male chairmen, who Lord Davies branded as “out of touch”, need to get the message that more inclusive boards mean more successful ones.

Lord Davies said the UK is on a tipping point as a result of his report. In the last few months more women have been appointed on FTSE boards than ever.  Going forward companies should ‘comply or say why’ says Lord Davies and customers and staff should hold boards and organisations to account on their results.

Following May’s election the number of women at the Assembly is set to drop, There are no longer gender representatives on Assembly committees. Meanwhile, the dire lack of women on the boards of most of Wales’ companies does not bode well for the competitive future for Wales.

Unsurprisingly the large majority of the people at this week’s conference on the issue were women. Rachel Lomax suggested that the power to make a change was in their hands. They could choose their working conditions and where they wanted to be in their career.  Yes, but, if only it was that simple…

Kirsty Davies is Deputy Director of the IWA.

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