We need more high-flying women

Lining up at the controls of an aircraft on runway 27L at Heathrow airport for the first time is pretty awe-inspiring. Terminal 5 is off into the distance, hundreds of metres of tarmac stretches out before you. I was doing this at dusk, with the runway’s lights ablaze; my peripheral vision registered lit-up buildings and dozens of other planes. Cleared for take-off, I slowly moved up all four throttles at the same time, and the adrenalin kicked in as I realised I was about to take 400 tonnes of fully loaded jumbo with nearly 340 passengers into the skies.

I wasn’t dreaming. I was definitely at the controls of an aircraft at Heathrow. But I was in a 747 simulator, a bit of training kit that costs more than £10m and runs round the clock in four-hour blocks. British Airways occasionally allows a few slots to be sold for charity, and a Handsome Hedge Fund Manager I know had bought one. He then kindly offered it to me so I could take a Girlfriend for a girls’ night out. This meant that sitting behind me, seatbelt tightly fastened, was one of the Girlfriends, watching closely as I attempted to fly a 3,000ft circuit before landing back at Heathrow. She needed the seatbelt. Despite lining up the aircraft perfectly with the runway on the approach, and bringing it down smoothly, my landing left much to be desired. I don’t think BA will be hiring me anytime soon.

BA, I discover, employs 180 female pilots, more than any other UK airline, but when you consider it employs 3,200 pilots in total, women represent less than 6 per cent. This imbalance in female participation in what remain male-dominated roles was again on my mind last week, when I was part of a private meeting with David Cameron. The prime minister had invited the steering committee of the 30% Club to meet him ahead of a larger reception at Number 10 to mark the achievements of women in business. The club was founded by Helena Morrissey to lobby for more women on company boards, so it was an appropriate opportunity for me and the rest of the committee to push home our point.

Cameron came straight from a meeting with the Davis committee, which recommends UK-listed FTSE 100 companies should be aiming for a minimum 25 per cent female board representation.

At the end of our session with the PM, we then gathered with him before one of Downing Street’s splendid fireplaces for a photograph. But imagine my horror when I realised that a couple of people who drifted in with Cameron from the earlier meeting had attached themselves to our photo opportunity! So we now have a photo of the PM and the steering committee of the 30% Club with two ring-ins. I was particularly put out because one was a chairman who has felt unable to sign up to our goals, and the other is someone who has previously called for quotas.

And we don’t want quotas. When quotas were introduced in Norway they made no difference, a recent academic paper has shown. Quotas will lead to token appointments of unqualified women, which is just not helpful. We hope by encouraging chairmen to look for qualified female candidates, they will reach our suggested target of 30% by 2015 and in doing so see off any possibility of legislation. The recent Financial Reporting Council amendment to the Companies Code, requiring companies to set targets and report progress, is more the kind of thing we had in mind.

So I had the two interlopers airbrushed from the photo. I have shown it to the Girlfriend who was with me in the simulator but not at Downing Street. She is photographed on a more regular basis, mostly by paparazzi, and is fabulously calm under pressure. Which is why she managed to land the 747 so smoothly that anyone in first class still nursing their champagne would not have spilled a drop.


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