October 12, 2010 2:44 pm

Women at the Top: ask our experts

What does it take to get more women into boardrooms? Our experts who are at the frontline in helping more women get to the top answered your questions.

Patricia Tehan, headhunter and partner at Lygon Group, which focuses on the recruitment of chairmen, non-executive directors, chief executives and other senior staff, and Peninah Thomson, executive coach and partner at Praesta Partners, took questions from FT readers.

Questions and answers are posted on the page below.

This Q&A is part of the FT’s Women at the Top series that includes features, news and video interviews with prominent businesswomen around the world.

Why aren’t there more women on boards?

Sarah Bagnall, Suffolk

Patricia Tehan: Women represent about 15-20 per cent of senior roles. There are several reasons why this figure is not higher, and why it is not growing at a faster rate:

  • Many organisations are still not sufficiently forward thinking to accommodate the need for flexibility in their approach to female employees; for instance, women returning to work after taking time out to have children. Many very able women simply opt out of life in large companies and set up their own small businesses or take on consulting projects. Unfortunately, whatever their real abilities, this makes them less qualified for most board roles.
  • Also, to generalise, historically, women have not been as strong at networking as their male colleagues, instead expecting promotion to come on merit. Mentoring can certainly be helpful here. Most successful senior women will have had a strong mentor or two during a key part of their careers.
  • We all have a tendency to recruit in our own image – we need to break this if women are to be better represented on the board, which we can do by demonstrating just how successful companies and boards are when there is greater diversity and a better balance.
  • The biggest hurdle is taking on your first board role. Some boards do not like to take on “learners” – they like their board members to be experienced. Once you have your first executive or non-executive board role, it is much more straightforward to take on another.

Peninah Thomson: There are demand-side issues and supply-side issues. Let’s take the demand side first. In the UK in the past decade, it was clear that few chairmen were looking for women non-executive directors, and few chief executive were looking for executive directors for their boards and executive committees. As long ago as 2003, Sir Derek Higgs, in his report on corporate governance, recommended that everyone involved in appointments to boards (chairmen, chief executives and search consultants) should look more widely for talented individuals – including women. In the same year, Dame Laura Tyson, in her report on non-executive directors, made similar points.

The demand side was not asking search consultants to put forward women candidates on their long lists, and therefore the consultants were not seeking out able, talented women. Some women did, of course, end up on boards, but not many – and there was a tendency for the same few women to be appointed. Seven years ago, when the FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme was being established, I interviewed eight chairmen and asked why the same women often seemed to be appointed as non-executive directors. They were very open in their replies: they said it was because those women had proved themselves by being on a board already. So, it was a chicken-and-egg situation: a woman who was not already known could not get on a board, and she was not known because she had not yet been appointed to a board.

In addition, there were few women coming through the pipeline of executive roles in companies. It was rare for chairmen to appoint women NEDs who had no executive experience. It was also felt to be important for women to have had operational (as opposed to functional) experience before being considered for board-level roles, and there had been fewer women in operational roles than in HR, marketing and so forth. The types of careers many women had were precluding them from being considered.

On the supply side, there are notable exceptions, of course, but generally speaking it is only in the past eight years or so that women have started to position themselves as credible candidates for board positions. Why? As we have seen above, the climate was not one in which they were being sought out, and they were not being welcomed as the source of fresh ideas, possessing different (and valuable) experience. Many women did not even try to put themselves forward.

A second point is that the whole process was pretty opaque. Many women did not know headhunters, and the search process seemed shrouded in mystery. Was putting themselves forward the right thing to do, or would it in some way disqualify them? Only in the past few years has the search process has become more transparent – and, to many women, it still isn’t.


How do you convince a company that flexible working is best for everybody and not just an excuse for women to leave early to pick up the kids?

Gabrielle Jackson, London

Tehan: Flexible working improves employee retention, which reduces cost to the organisation and significantly helps attract more women employees at all levels of the organisation. It is also incumbent on women to continue to deliver under flexible working arrangements.

The right to request flexible working is to be extended from next year, which will force employers to look again at this issue. There is a range of arguments to use: companies are currently missing the skills and talents of too many people who are forced to choose between raising a family and having a job, and businesses should work to change this to make life better for employers, employees and the company. Equally, childcare is not necessarily solely a woman’s work. If both mothers and fathers were able to work flexible hours, both could partake in family matters and both could be employed. Businesses would benefit as they would gain from everyone’s skills.

Thomson: Most companies – especially in the current financial and economic climate, when all organisations have to maintain productivity, creativity and innovation, and do more with less – are concerned with how to create an environment in which talented men and women stay; feel motivated and energised about the company’s purpose; and want to play a part in its success. That is an increasingly tough call when budgets are being cut, competition is intense and demand is variable (good in some sectors, wobbly in others). It is important to help decision-makers appreciate that creating an organisational culture that fosters commitment and engagement will help with productivity, innovation and output.

Many of the mentees on the FTSE 100 programme, and many of the senior executive women that we coach, have children and a variety of other domestic commitments, including (increasingly) elder care. But so, too, do men: flexible working is – or ought to be – gender blind. Both women and men need to be articulate and convinced advocates for change in this area: it is possible to devise systems and processes that enable people to fulfil family responsibilities and be productive contributors at work. Many clients – men and women – use the early part of the evening when they get home to take care of children (one senior woman calls this the “bathe and read run”), and finish a report or check e-mails later in the evening. The point is that, in my experience, most people want to do a good job. It is well within our capability as senior people in organisations to devise ways of helping them to do so.


What would be our target percentage of women in top management, since we belong to a steel company with female talent retention issues? What actions should we take to improve gender diversity?

Carolina, Argentina

Tehan: The starting point is for the chairman or chief executive and the rest of the senior team to make increasing the percentage of women in the company (as well as in senior management posts) a priority for the organisation. If they are not demonstrably in favour, it will be much tougher to achieve. Targets can be helpful, in which case I would set a reasonable target of 10-15 per cent above where you are today; set a medium-term goal of 30 per cent for women in senior supervisory positions, and an ultimate goal of 50 per cent.

Lessons can be learned from the global energy companies, which have made huge efforts to improve gender diversity. However, it takes time. Retention can be improved by increasing the proportion of women hired, flexible working, and training and development across the organisation. Formal and informal networking groups work well. It is important for bright and ambitious women entering an organisation to see that there is a route to the top; to see and meet senior-level female role models; and to witness and experience advancement based on merit. Mentoring, particularly of high-potential women in a strongly male-dominated environment, can provide the right level of encouragement for women to step up and put themselves forward for a promotion.

Thomson: The sectors regarded as typically masculine (oil and gas, mining and others) have particular issues. In the past, relatively few women studied engineering, geology, engineering and other disciplines of this type at university – the pipeline of technically qualified women available within these sectors was consequently narrow. When we were doing research for A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom, we found there were few senior women in these industries; as a consequence, they often felt isolated. It will be no surprise to any reader of this Q&A session to hear that many people – a lone female in a typically masculine sector, a lone individual from an ethnic minority, or a lone male in a typically feminine sector – can occasionally feel isolated, no matter how courageous or resilient they are.

I’m writing this from the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Deauville, where 1,200 delegates from countries all over the world have come to discuss how to promote beneficial change in our societies. About 75 per cent of the delegates are women, and last night at dinner I was talking to a male chief executive who was describing his reaction to being – for the first time – in a minority. I won’t need to describe his impressions, as they will be familiar to all women readers. The point is that women in typically masculine cultures need not special, but careful attention if they are to be retained, energised and enabled to make the best contribution they can.

Setting targets for retention in such contexts needs to be handled with care, because if those targets are not met, then individuals (and management) can become discouraged. Setting targets, though important to keep the momentum of change and to hold the organisation to account, needs to be accompanied by imaginative management action to create a climate in which minorities (for example, senior women in a steel mill) can thrive.


Do you believe that HR jobs are a dead end for women aspiring to board positions?

Leyla Boulton

Thomson: No, they are not dead-end jobs, but HR as a function relatively rarely has a seat at the board table. It’s regrettable, but it’s a fact; this is where we are. I would advise any bright, aspirational young woman to try to get as much operational experience as possible, because that will provide her with a wider range of options. On the plus side, experienced professionals who have gone into HR have a hugely important role to play in shaping future generations of talent; they are well placed to influence the type of cultural change that senior male as well as female executives know needs to happen in UK companies if we are to see the use of country’s entire talent base.

Tehan: It is true that there is a trend to reduce the number of executives on the board to two or three, including the chief executive and the chief financial officer. Therefore, most senior functional roles are represented on the executive committee. It is also the case that you do not need to be on the board to make a significant contribution.

We recruit executive and non-executive directors for a wide range of businesses, from the top of the FTSE 100 to AIM-listed and private-equity-backed boards. There is a growing realisation of the value that women can bring to boards, and we are frequently asked to find high-calibre and highly qualified women candidates to sit on the boards of our client companies.

There is probably a higher proportion of women in senior HR roles than in any other discipline and, while HR directors may not be on their own boards, mainly due to board size, increasingly they serve as non-executive directors on other companies’ boards. The core HR director skills provide essential input to board remuneration and nomination committees, both in an executive and in a non-executive role, and can be especially valuable for the boards of companies coming to the market for the first time.

However, in our experience, chairmen prefer to recruit NEDs who can contribute more broadly. Anyone with a background in one of the functional roles reporting to the board (whether it is HR, legal, sales or marketing) will find there are greater opportunities for board roles if they can really demonstrate broad-based business experience, ideally with P&L or budget management, and operational exposure to such things as business change, growth, transformation and mergers and acquisitions. In that way they are in a position to show that they have the skills, knowledge and expertise to add value to another company’s board.


As a young woman with strong female role models in my life, working for a company with several female senior partners, I’ve been blissfully unaware of any “glass ceiling”. I think all your hard work to push for more women in the boardroom may already have borne fruit for my generation in the UK. Do you think your efforts in the UK and Europe to get more women into the boardroom will eventually reach countries where women are ordinarily not permitted to hold any positions of responsibility?


Thomson: It’s great to read that you feel you are benefiting from the work that others have done to ensure women have as much opportunity to participate in strategic decision-making bodies, such as boards and executive committees, as their ability and aspiration dictate. I guess you may be in a professional service firm, or a law firm, as you mention “female senior partners” – and it is undoubtedly true that significant progress is being made in those environments to enable women to come through to partnership.

There remain, though, issues to be addressed – and in any case, the pattern of reform is patchy, so I do not think we should shut up shop on working to improve things just yet. To your point, though: yes, I hope very much that the work that I – and countless others, men and women – am doing may “read across” into countries where women are ordinarily not permitted to hold positions of responsibility. I believe that the problems we face – how to restart growth in western economies; how to defuse conflict between warring factions or countries; how to defend our countries against terrorism; or how to create societies in which the largest possible number of people genuinely feel they have a stake – are best addressed by the ideas, creativity, problem-solving skills, resolve and ingenuity of both men and women.

I say this not because of any ideological commitment, but because my working life has taught me that you get better solutions to problems, especially very difficult problems, when you have a variety of brains, experience and approaches brought to bear upon them. At the moment, that variety is still not present in many strategic decision-making bodies that remain homogenous. There is more influencing to be done, and more change to take place before we reach more balanced participation – and that applies to us here in the UK, as well as in other contexts.

Tehan: It is always wonderful to hear of a situation where the glass ceiling just does not exist. Congratulations to your firm. The focus we have brought, as a leading board search firm, to the value of high-calibre women on boards appears to be bearing fruit in the UK and Europe, and the results are encouraging. However, in countries where women are not allowed by law or custom to hold positions of responsibility, the issue is essentially political. In time, I do hope that the benefits experienced by companies that embrace diversity in all its forms will influence boardrooms in other parts of the world.


I am new in my job as a salesperson at a electronic company in Guangzhou, China, but I majored in international trade. Now I want to make some plans for my future career. Would you advise that I learn some new skills after work, with an eye on eventually changing jobs, or rather make changes to my current job after I have become familiar with it?

Wendy, China

Thomson: Congratulations on your new job. Is there anything to stop you taking a twin-track approach? You could perhaps try to learn some new skills after work (don’t leave yourself with no free time, though) and also start thinking about possible changes you could make to the existing role, once you are more settled in.

The really good thing, to my ears as an executive coach, is that you are thinking, and planning, your future. For complex reasons, fewer women than men do this; what I and my colleagues have found is that women may tend to focus on doing a good job, keeping their head down and hoping that their achievement will be noticed and that advancement will follow. Regrettably, this seldom works well as a career strategy. Any woman who wants to have an interesting career needs to spend a bit of time thinking about how she is going to achieve it. This doesn’t have to be an exhaustive process, nor should it be regarded as a straitjacket – but it is necessary to have some sort of a plan.

Quite a lot of my work with senior women of high potential involves a dialogue about what they want to achieve in their lives, personal and professional, and then helping them craft a plan to make progress. You might want to look at my book A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom – although I’m sorry, it is not yet in Chinese!

Tehan: I assume this is your first job after your graduation in international trade? If you want to reach the board eventually, you will probably need to broaden your skill base to include responsibility for other disciplines as well, and move into general management at some stage. Look for ways to develop your skills as you progress through the organisation. As you become more senior in your organisation, an internal or external mentor or sponsor can help guide you. Make sure you build and use your internal and external networks effectively. Think about why you want to be on a board, and what you hope to get out of it. Work out what you can bring. Be flexible and be realistic.


Similar discussions have been taking place at various forums on the role of women in business. Have there been any measures adopted to encourage women in the workplace? How many of our successful women invest their time mentoring and coaching young, talented women?

Shivali Bharadwaj Singh, Sunnyvale, California

Thomson: The good news is that there are many initiatives and measures being adopted to encourage women in the workplace. I was speaking yesterday at an international session here at the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, and one of the plus points was to be able to describe the steps we are taking in the UK.

Perhaps the single example at the forefront of my mind is a colloquium on the FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme that is being held next week at the Bank of England. The fact that it is being held at our national bank, and addressed by the governor of the bank, speaks volumes about the extent to which the issues related to women in the workplace are now being taken seriously by senior decision-makers in our country. The chairmen of several iconic FTSE companies will be speaking, as will two of the senior women who have been mentored. The intention is to extend the FTSE programme into the 250 – and perhaps, in time, even into the 350 – and to increase the number of women who are working at board and excom level.

So that’s great news – and there are other examples. There are many networks springing up all over the UK, focused on helping women participate more fully at strategic level in UK corporate life. A new initiative in which I am involved is the 30% Club, which will be launched within the next few weeks. Led by senior women from the financial services sector, the club will work to increase the percentage of women on UK boards to 30 per cent by 2015. There are other initiatives, too – the new issue of the Female FTSE Report comes out in November; try to get hold of a copy, as it is a real mine of information and ideas. Finally, my own firm has just launched a service called “Women in Business Leadership” to support senior executive women and the organisations that employ them, in the UK and worldwide. So there is much to be cheerful about.

Tehan: Companies across developed and developing markets are driving a wide range of initiatives to encourage women in the workplace – of course they vary from country to country, and according to different regulatory pressures and legislative environments. Norway adopted a gender quota system in 2006 and has had real success in building board representation to 2006. I agree that there are not enough women on boards, and I am delighted to see that the current UK government is taking this concern seriously with a review led by Lord Davies. I like his ambitious target of seeing at least half of new appointments going to women, and his decision to champion the cause.

However, I am not in favour of quotas and strongly against legislation. It certainly does not appeal to potential women board members who prefer to get there on merit. And it does not appeal to our clients, as we find that boards prefer to recruit the best-qualified candidate, irrespective of gender.

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