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The only female chairman of a blue-chip British company has called for employers to allow women to take family-friendly career breaks of up to six years.

Dame Alison Carnwath, who chairs property group Land Securities, said that with better hiring and staff-retention policies, companies would realise the economic benefit of holding on to their best female staff through child-rearing and beyond.

“Employers have to learn to accommodate you through the mid-life piece,” Dame Alison said in an interview with the Financial Times. “If you want to spend, say, six years having children and getting them off to school before you come back and do full-time work, [companies] have to look upon it as not wanting to lose somebody.”

Professional HR departments would be able to find “measurable economic benefits” in such a strategy, she said, compared with the wasted cost of hiring and training women and then failing to retain them.

“It’s much better to keep people in the fold,” she said, both from a pure cost point of view but also in the interests of “continuity of culture”.

The comments are a direct rebuke to a controversial speech given by Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party last month. Mr Farage, a former commodities trader, argued that a mother working in the City of London following a period of child-rearing is “worth far less to the employer when she comes back than when she goes away”.

Dame Alison’s lonely position at the helm of a FTSE 100 board will end in April when Susan Kilsby becomes chairman of Shire, the pharmaceuticals group.

Four FTSE 100 companies have women chief executives – Royal Mail, easyJet, Imperial Tobacco and Burberry – though that number has declined after departures from Anglo American and Pearson, which owns the Financial Times.

The decline will continue when Burberry boss Angela Ahrendts moves to Apple. However, Liv Garfield who is set to head Severn Trent will boost numbers again, as could Ana Botín if Santander UK moves ahead with a planned flotation.

At overall FTSE 100 board level, the proportion of women last month topped 20 per cent for the first time. The government has set a 25 per cent target by 2015.

Dame Alison, who has no children herself, said financial companies, particularly banks, were “very bad” at promoting women. As a non-executive at Barclays, Dame Alison rose to prominence in 2012 after resisting a pay deal, worth a total of close to £25m, for former boss Bob Diamond. She was overruled and later resigned.

At Land Securities, she is proud of having made great strides in evening out the gender balance. Women now account for about a third of the board, the executive committee and the next level down.

Her damehood, granted in the New Year honours list, was widely seen as a reward for her work as an advocate for women’s advancement in business. Alongside her portfolio of non-executive roles, Dame Alison is active in business mentoring for male and female business leaders across a clutch of European companies.

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