Alison Wheaton has the curriculum vitae of a classic high-flyer: a degree from Cornell, an MBA from Wharton, and a career that encompasses Morgan Stanley, Pepsi-Cola International and Bass. But Wheaton, an American who has made her home in the UK, lacks one thing that would set the seal on her distinction: a directorship with a leading company on the London Stock Exchange.

So, on a hot early autumn day, she is travelling across London by taxi to see a well-connected man at the top of British business who can help her achieve her goal.

Neatly dressed in a brown trouser suit, complemented by discreet pearl earrings and necklace, Wheaton admits to feeling “a little nervous…but mostly just really looking forward to it”. The business leader on whom she is about to call is Sir John Parker, 64-year-old chairman of National Grid, one of the world’s largest utilities companies. In his other big corporate post as chairman of P&O, he led the sale of the shipping and ports operator to DP World of Dubai earlier this year. Sir John has been Wheaton’s mentor for the past two years. “To be honest I couldn’t believe my luck in getting him,” says Wheaton, 42, who is director of property and information technology for Mitchells & Butlers, Britain’s largest managed pubs group. “He is very warm and easy to talk to and very structured in his thinking, which is why we hit it off at our first meeting. It’s people like him who will help to make the difference.”

The “difference” she is talking about is a redressing of the gender imbalance in Britain’s boardrooms. Wheaton is part of a unique experiment that will help determine whether voluntary measures can be as effective as quotas in feminising the white, middle-aged male profile of top boards. It will be a challenge. In Norway, where quotas are being introduced, the number of female board directors in top companies has jumped from 22 per cent to 29 per cent in the past two years, according to a survey by the European Professional Women’s Network. Over the same period, leading UK companies have seen only a slight rise from 10 per cent to 11.4 per cent.

The driving forces behind the UK initiative, known as the FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme, are two professional women who together decided that action was needed: Peninah Thomson, a partner at Praesta, an executive coaching firm that is funding the programme; and Jacey Graham, an independent consultant and former head of diversity strategy at Shell International.

With support from government ministers and business schools, they have persuaded 29 chairmen and chief executives of FTSE 100 companies - including Niall FitzGerald of Reuters, Peter Sutherland of BP, Baroness Hogg of 3i and Philip Hampton of J Sainsbury - to mentor up-and-coming women in non-competing companies with the aim of helping them secure suitable directorships. Launched two years ago, the programme has attracted attention from Australia, Canada and the Netherlands and is being modelled in France. The World Bank has shown interest in the initiative as a means to further equal rights for women.

The mentoring sessions are by their nature private. Today, however, Wheaton and Sir John have agreed that I can be a fly-on-the-wall at their meeting. Wheaton has had reservations about going public, but decided it was important to show how useful a “tremendous mentor” could be. “I also try to think about it from the point of view of: If I were a bloke, what would I do? A bloke, presumably, would stick his head above the parapet.”

We arrive around noon at the headquarters of National Grid, just off Trafalgar Square, and are shown to the waiting area outside Sir John’s office. There is a party atmosphere as a group of other women arrive, greeting each other enthusiastically. It transpires that they are personal assistants whose bosses are all members of the same committee, and they are gathering for an all-female get-to-know-you lunch. Given our rather different reason for being there, it is an ironic reminder of the gender segregation that persists in significant parts of the jobs market. Wheaton has her mind on other things. She has a typed list of subjects she wants to raise: what size of company and what sector should she be aiming for? How can she best approach the chairman of her own company for advice? Is this a good moment to renew her rounds of the headhunters?

She is ushered in for a preliminary chat. Ten minutes later, I am invited to join them in Sir John’s unostentatious office overlooking the National Gallery. He runs the 45-minute meeting in a calm, businesslike manner, inquiring in his soft Northern Irish accent what progress she has made since their last session in May.

They briefly discuss the failed bid for Mitchells & Butlers by Robert Tchenguiz, the property investor. Then she explains how she has gained useful experience from her company’s recent acquisition of 240 Beefeater and Brewers Fayre pub-restaurants from Whitbread. She speaks briskly, using her hands for emphasis.

Sir John asks what she has learned from her experience on the board of the London Development Agency (LDA), which is responsible for the economic development of the capital. Has she avoided the trap that many executives fall into of being too hands-on? She believes she has, by offering feedback rather than solutions and by focusing on governance.

Then they broach the all-important subject of networking, at which women are often said to be at a disadvantage since so much of it takes place in the pub, over evening dinners or on the golf course.

“I know I suggested you visited two or three headhunters,” says Sir John, whose notes on the table in front of him are hand-written. “I think it’s time to follow that up. My experience is you need to keep visiting and talking to them about opportunities and how the lessons you’ve learned from the LDA are equipping you to be a more rounded non-executive director.”

Wheaton says: “The other thing I’d like to do is refresh my cv, given what’s been going on in my day job and at the LDA, and if you don’t mind I’ll send that back through.”

“I’ll be very happy to run my eye over it,” he says. “I encouraged you to look at the target sectors that you were interested in. Has that changed?”

As well as retail and consumer products companies, she says she is now thinking about property and construction.

“I think that’s a very natural sector to add on,” Sir John concurs. “If you can set the camera lens a bit wider, that’s a good thing. I think the FTSE 250 or 350 is a great place to start. Then you can gravitate towards the FTSE 100 in due course. You’ve some very exciting companies in the 250, and you get almost closer to the business, which is very good learning experience.”

Has she been on a development course for non-executives, he asks. “There are also some good conferences that gather together a lot of people from the sector, be it retail or property…I guess you haven’t done a lot of that.” Wheaton says she has not, although she has represented Bass and M&B at the Confederation of British Industry and made helpful contacts that way.

Without Wheaton having to ask, Sir John then suggests she also seek the advice of Roger Carr, who not only chairs Mitchells & Butlers, but also Centrica, parent of British Gas, and is deputy chairman of Cadbury Schweppes. Carr is mentoring another woman in the cross-company programme, so he is known to be sympathetic.

Wheaton says she has bumped into Carr in the lift and they have compared notes on his role as a mentor and hers as a “mentee”. He has already offered to meet her when she feels the need. “So I think now is probably the right time…I was keen to get your views on how to best approach that with Roger,” she says.

After discussing this, Sir John seems pleased. “In the short time we’ve known each other, I really feel you’ve become much more focused on what you’re after. You’re preparing yourself well. There are no quick fixes. You have to wait for the right opportunity and be prepared to keep knocking at the doors of a few headhunters. I’m absolutely confident you are a great fit, for a consumer-facing organisation in particular.”

The mentoring session is over. There has been no time for small talk, but they chat while the photographer takes some pictures and discover they are both keen sailors. I ask Sir John if his role extends to putting in a good word to his contacts on her behalf. “In introducing Alison to a few of the headhunters, I’ve made my views about her known and will continue to do that,” he replies. “And I will be very happy, when she’s in close contact with a particular company, at the interview stage, to be a referee.”

Does he think the old boys’ network lives on? “No, I think the whole recruitment process for boards has become much more transparent. Most searches for non-executive directors involve a headhunter, so it’s not left to a few chaps getting into a corner after a board meeting and saying: Would Joe Able-body be a suitable choice to come on this board?”

Nonetheless, he accepts it is hard for women to gain access to male-dominated networks. “That’s why the females have to get in amongst us, make themselves known and let people be aware that they are interested in becoming non-executive directors.”

Sir John expects Wheaton to find a suitable directorship in 12 to 15 months. Other women on the programme are also gaining visibility, according to Peninah Thomson. One has been short-listed for a FTSE 100 board. Another has been appointed to her own company’s board and a third has won a big promotion to a global operations role. Two have taken up public sector appointments. Several headhunting firms are offering feedback and career-management.

A couple of the women have decided they do not want non-executive directorships after all. Given the time and effort it takes, not to mention the risks and challenges that now face anyone appointed to a big board, perhaps that is not surprising.

Wheaton is not one to baulk at barriers, however. Before heading to see Sir John, we meet for a cafe latte on the waterfront near Tower Bridge and she explains how she arrived at her current job in the very male world of pub estates and IT. “I’ve always had to work hard, so the idea of having to work hard to get a non-executive position doesn’t put me off,” she says.

Wheaton was born into a lower middle-class family in Colden, an appropriately named town in upstate New York “where winter starts in October and ends in April”. She was the first person in her family to go to university, winning a place at Cornell that was funded by scholarships and loans. While studying government and economics, she came to the UK on an exchange programme with the London School of Economics and did a stint as an unpaid assistant to Margaret Beckett, then Labour’s shadow health minister, now UK foreign secretary.

Having sworn she would never work in banking, she then did just that, joining Morgan Stanley during the 1980s Bonfire of the Vanities era on Wall Street. Rather than the traditional analyst route, she entered on a programme for Ivy League graduates to work in the back office, acting as a counterweight to the risks involved in the financial instruments that were emerging at the time. She was one of only two women.

After her MBA, she joined Pepsi and settled in the UK with her British husband, a chartered accountant, whom she had met at the LSE. They have no children, but enjoy the company of their young nieces and goddaughters. “Time just got away from us. I did an MBA. We were both trying to establish careers, and the next thing we knew we were in our mid-to-late 30s.” Living in the UK also meant she was 3,500 miles from home and the support of a family network.

She joined Bass in 1997 as strategic director of its pubs division for the challenge. She quickly gained operational experience and was offered the property portfolio just before M&B was spun off from Bass in 2003.

“I had men working for me who were older than me and didn’t appreciate having to work for a woman who didn’t know anything about property. I won them over slowly, mostly by helping make their objectives clearer. One very senior guy who’d worked there for 22 years said the last two years were the most enjoyable because he’d been able to be so effective.”

A little more than two years ago, she was approached by Jacey Graham to take part in the cross-mentoring programme. It was good timing. “I was feeling I’d like to stretch my wings.”

After the session with Sir John has finished and we have left his office, I ask her why she is so determined to secure a non-executive post on a big company. “For two simple reasons,” she says. “One, because it will add to my skillset, and the other because I think I can make a contribution. I once spoke to a headhunter who said there are two types of non-executives, one after money, and the other after influence. He said: I think you’re after influence.”

Not everyone likes the idea of the mentoring programme. Some female observers have raised concerns that it is a bunch of male big shots talking down to women about the best way to make progress. Wheaton’s view is that it would be good if more female non-executives were involved as well, but that women have to take advantage of what is on offer. “We’re going to have to be mentored by men until more women are in these positions.”

Does she believe the programme will result in a rebalancing of Britain’s boards? “I don’t think it’s the whole answer,” she says, before heading off into the busy traffic for her next meeting. “But it’s an important piece of the puzzle.”

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