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Comment: Sexism still rife in British boardrooms

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The debate about the under-representation of females in the boardroom was stoked again last week despite the recent appointment of Judith McKenna as Asda Chief Operating Officer (COO). The CEO of health & beauty e-tailer Feelunique.com, Aaron Chatterley, argues that sexism is still prevalent in UK boardrooms.

By Aaron Chatterley

Last week top City recruitment companies pledged to draw up shortlists for director level roles that contained at least 30 per cent of female candidates.

The move reignited the debate about female representation within Britain’s boardrooms. Lord Davies, the former Minister for Business, had previously suggested that the UK’s top headhunters draw up a voluntary code of conduct to support the promotion of more businesswomen to the top echelons of corporate Britain.

Davies has urged FTSE 100 companies to aim for 25 per cent female representation in their boardrooms by 2015, compared with 12.5 per cent at present. He stopped short of mandatory requirements – possibly because it would have fallen foul of employment law.

This move seems to me to acknowledge the implied fact that sexism is alive and well in British boardrooms.

Louise Mensch, the Conservative MP who seems to like taking on the biggest names in UK media, recently used Twitter to remind Lord Sugar about comments he had made in 2009 about the problems of hiring a pregnant woman. And Simon Murray, the chairman of commodities group Glencore, didn’t make any new friends when he recently claimed that young women were a risk to hire because they get married and become pregnant. He was obliged to apologise after being slapped down for his comments by Business Secretary Vince Cable.

In the retail sector, there are some great examples of women in the boardroom. Belle Robinson (Jigsaw), Natalie Massanet (Net-a-Porter), Martha Lane Fox (UK Digital Champion), Chrissie Rucker (White Company), Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne (Genius Foods) and Hollie Tucker & Sophie Cornish (Notonthehighstreet.com) all spring to mind. And then there was the recent appointment of Judith McKenna as COO at Asda.

But with the exception of McKenna, all of the above played key roles in founding their businesses. It is absolutely clear that when it comes to entrepreneurship and creating wealth, women are just as adept as their male counterparts.

So perhaps the problem of women being under-represented in the boardroom is more evident in longer established businesses. And I think the problem lies not in board level recruitment decisions, but actually at the senior management level that is filled with executives in their 30s and early 40s. That means that there will always be fewer female candidates for board level jobs.

Personally, working in the beauty industry, I find men are in the minority. At Feelunique we hire the best person for the job. It is really as simple as that.

But I suspect that it is indeed the case that Simon Murray’s comments reflect the secret views of too many business managers and owners. I firmly believe this is the primary reason why women are under-represented in so many companies. But I think mostly it is not a thought process built on prejudice, but on financial considerations.

However, at a macroeconomic level, this means that a huge amount of talent and business expertise is not being fully utilised.

I tend to feel that the best way of levelling the playing field is to equalise paternity and maternity leave, or give a set period of time off which can be divided up by a couple as they see fit. Yes, I know that this might add material costs to a small to medium-sized enterprise, but I strongly believe the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

Note: The views expressed here are those of Aaron Chatterley and do not necessarily represent the views of Retail Gazette.

Published on Friday 29 July by Editorial Assistant

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