Despite the depressing picture of a decline in the number of women holding senior executive positions in FTSE companies, there have in the past been many impressive female leaders such as Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi in India, who led her troops in battle (with her baby son strapped to her back) during the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence in 1857.
In July this year the UK’s Cranfield Institute published the results of its 20th FTSE Women on Boards Report which reported a marked drop in the numbers of female CEOs (chief executive officers) and CFOs (chief financial officers) and other executives on the boards of FTSE 250 companies and that the numbers had remained static for FTSE 100 companies.
It found that there were 30 women in full-time executive roles at FTSE 250 firms, down from 38 last year, equating to just 6.4% of the total, and of these there were just six female CEOs and 19 CFOs.
Although the numbers of female executives in FTSE 100 companies had risen from 27.7% in October 2017 to 29% by July 2018, the women recruited were largely in non-executive director roles.
All this is despite a drive to reach a target of 33% of female executives on FTSE 100 boards by 2020, set by the government-backed Alexander-Hampton review.
At the moment just four FTSE 100 companies – the retailer Next, the online estate agent Rightmove, the financial services provider Hargreaves Lansdown and the builder Taylor Wimpey – have 50% or more women on their boards. The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) director general is also a woman, Carolyn Fairbairn.
Among the USA’s Fortune 500 companies, analysed by the Pew Research Centre, it is much the same story. Just 10% of 5,700 CEOs and CFOs in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 stock index companies are women.
There have been some high-profile female CEO resignations too, including Indra Nooyi, from PepsiCo, Denise Morrison, from Campbell Soup, and Meg Whitman, from Hewlett Packard.
Changing the boardroom culture to a less hostile environment for female executives
There is some evidence that the way female executives are treated is different from the way male executives are.
In an article in the Evening Standard recently the writer Anthony Hilton cited the treatment of top 10 accountancy firm Grant Thornton’s female CEO Sacha Romanowich, who he said was “effectively forced to resign” after three years.
An anonymous memo was sent to the press, he says, raising concerns about Romanowich’s alleged “socialist agenda”. She had talked about social mobility, capped her own remuneration to well below that of other Partners in Grant Thornton and introduced a scheme to give all the staff a share of the company’s profits. Some of the company’s rivals spoke out about the brutal treatment she had been subjected to.
It was a similar story of rumour, innuendo and gossip, he says, that led to the eviction of Barbara Judge last year as chair of the IoD (Institute of Directors).
The question is whether such tactics would have been used against male executives.
On Tuesday this week, the Guardian reported on a call from Sir Philip Hampton, chair of the Hampton-Alexander Review referred to earlier, for consumers to boycott the firms that are “so clearly out of touch”.
This was after it was found that Five British companies have failed to appoint a single woman to their boards two years after the target set by the Review.
Sir Philip, who is the CEO of pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline, said: “it would be good to see pressure from the media, politicians, ourselves [as business leaders] and consumers” put on companies that are clearly out of touch with the 21st Century.
There is a theory, called the Glass Cliff, that says that women (along with other “minorities”) are more likely than white men to be promoted to CEO of weakly performing firms or during times of economic decline. Arguably, therefore, they are being set up to fail. If true this is appalling.
Historically, we are not short of examples of able female leaders, from the Rani of Jhansi mentioned above to Boudica or Boudicca, a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60, to Queen Victoria, who ruled over the vast British Empire, to two female leaders of the Tories, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.
It is true that female politicians are subject to some appalling bullying, insult and harassment particularly on social media.
It is also not unusual for male executives to explain the lack of female executives with excuses such as a shortage of suitably able female candidates, or that women are temperamentally unsuited to the cut and thrust of the boardroom.
Is it any wonder that in such a hostile environment for women the 19th and 20th Century attitudes of the male dinosaurs in many boardrooms are so hard to change despite the fact that they are limiting their businesses to a narrower pool of available talent than they otherwise might have?