LONDON, May 25 (Reuters) - Many more women are working in Britain's boa
rdrooms since a government-sponsored report into the issue last year led chairmen and headhunters to look at a slightly less senior level for new talent, bringing more women into the mix.
In February 2011, Mervyn Davies, a former chief executive of Standard Chartered and also a former British trade minister, issued a report calling for the number of women on boards to double to 25 percent by 2015.
'Two years ago, there seemed to be almost this sort of collision going on between chairmen and search firms,' said Ruth Sealy, a research fellow at Cranfield University's International Centre for Women Leaders, the government's monitor.
Chairmen and headhunters are now talking in a way they never were before, said Sealy, also author of a forthcoming report on the progress of search firms in the appointment process.
FTSE 100 boards, of which nine are all-male, have seen female representation rise to 16.0 percent from 12.5 percent over the past year, having been 9.4 percent in 2004. The figure for FTSE 250 firms, of which 107 boards are all-male, is 10.1 percent.
All involved are battling to stave off threats made in March by European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding to impose quotas if more progress were not forthcoming. The Commission is seeking responses in a consultation that closes this month.
Some of the biggest headhunters last year signed up to a voluntary code of conduct, pledging to improve the gender balance.
'As ever, there are those that genuinely get this and those that, particularly in the last year, are paying lip service to it,' Sealy said.
A Cranfield University report found that, over the period 2006-10, boards with no women had an average size of 9.4, compared with 10.8 for those with at least one woman.
'Whilst it is often believed that fostering gender diversity is related to enlarging the board size, the comparison between these two categories dispels that myth,' it said.
Susanne Thorning-Lund, a senior consultant at executive search firm, Odgers Berndtson, said: 'It is a question of how do you get to the next level. How do you get hold of the very able women who are, perhaps, less visible just below the executive level?'
Networking is one way.
Veronica Wadley, a former editor of London's Evening Standard, met the chief executive of one of the boards she was to later sit on at a dinner. As a result of that conversation she was approached for the position of non-executive director.
'That initial breakthrough probably has to come through your own hard work,' she told Reuters. 'There is a very well-known saying among headhunters and among women who want to be non-executive directors : You do not get one until you have got one'.
Wadley now sits on several boards, including FTSE 250 housebuilder Berkeley Group, and is chairwoman of London's Arts Council.
Hard work is no doubt also a prerequisite, but to address the situation of not being appointed to a board unless you have experience on one, more needs to be done.
'You cannot go to a headhunter and say 'I want someone who has a FTSE board experience and has been a CEO' as, lo and behold, you are going to get a white male in his 60s,' Sealy said.
Headhunters say it is right they are part of the solution and are seeing more pressure but also more flexibility from chairmen.
Will Dawkins, head of SpencerStuart's UK board practice, said developing the female pipeline of talent was very important as well as highlighting to chairmen intrinsic qualities rather than just paper achievements.
'Chairmen are now prepared to look at a slightly less senior level in the organisation for female board talent on the grounds that these women are going to be just as good as more senior men,' he said.
For Wadley, while political and business pressure is starting to bear fruit, ultimate responsibility remained on an individual's shoulder. 'There is absolutely nothing worse than a woman being appointed to something she is not qualified for.'
(Editing by Dan Lalor) Keywords: BOARDS WOMEN/BRITAIN
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