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Where have all the women gone?

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The first time women were admitted to the trading floor of the London Stock Exchange (see picture) on 26 March, 1973 – almost two centuries after it was created – they caused more than a few raised eyebrows (read full-on stares). But it didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off and by the Noughties, women had well and truly infiltrated the country’s most powerful and FTSE 100 – reaping the benefits of six-figure bonuses and champagne lunches while wielding boardroom power regardless of their gender.

As a result, by 2008, the proportion of female directors in the exclusive FTSE 100 had peaked at an all-time high of 11.7%. So why then, just two years later, are women silently slipping out of the boardroom in growing numbers? Hard to believe, isn’t it, that in the year that saw Natalie Massenet sell Net-a-Porter for a cool £50million, women are now playing a lesser role in the running of top companies than they did in 2004. According to a survey by head-hunting company SpencerStuart, in 2009 the number of female directors sunk below the 10% mark, and the number of women at the most senior director levels dropped to a worrying 3.7% – that works out roughly as one woman for every 25 men.

In real terms, there are only five women – Dame Marjorie Scardino of Pearson, which publishes the Financial Times, Angela Ahrendts of Burberry, Imperial Tobacco’s Alison Cooper, Cynthia Carroll at mining firm Anglo American and Katherine Garrett-Cox, CEO of Alliance Trust – currently flying the flag at FTSE 100 companies.

That’s right: despite Margaret Thatcher becoming Britain’s first female prime minister 31 years ago, there are only five of us calling the shots in the country’s biggest companies. In fact, the SpencerStuart survey found that the number of companies with one or more women non-executive directors has fallen from 72% to 63% in the last 12 months.

Cast the net wider and the problem gets worse: 45% of FTSE 350 companies have failed to appoint any women on their boards in the last 12 months at all. The problem isn’t exclusive to the UK either. In France, the number of females in company board roles has dropped to just 10% while in the US the figure is slightly higher at 15%, but in Portugal the number has shrunk to a rather pitiful 3%. Most worrying is a report by Britain’s Equality And Human Rights Commission which calculated that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 60 years for women to gain equal representation on the boards of the FTSE 100.

So where have all the women gone?

THE MONEY FACTOR

The effects of the recession touched everyone: house values plummeted and redundancies affected companies across the country. But while Britain as a whole was busy tightening its belt, it is high-flying women who’ve taken the brunt. “Instead of using the recession as a time for change, the economic climate has left the top companies more male dominated,” says Dr Ruth Sealy, author of the Cranfield School Of Management’s Female FTSE report.

One reason is that women are seen as more expensive. Despite evidence which shows that companies with a female chief executive or board director achieve a 10% higher return on capital, maternity pay can put a huge dent in company finances.

In addition, flexible working hours (which the law states any working parent can ask for but are predominantly requested by women) put a strain on budgets and schemes which encourage and support women trying to make it in the City are expensive. According to India Gary- Martin, president of the City Women’s Network, companies see these as an unnecessary cost, “Initiatives to increase the number of women on boards are less attractive to companies that are fighting through a recession.” The financial crisis has also called for longer hours, especially in the City, which was largely blamed for the financial disaster. The pressure to spend life chained to a desk is making it almost impossible for some women to work at the highest level because they’re typically the main child carer. A study by Youngjoo Cha, from Cornell University, found that it’s overwhelmingly women who’ll quit if both they and their husband work long hours.

WORK/LIFE BALANCE

Recession aside, there’s been a shift in priorities too. The 21st century woman not only wants her business cards to impress people, she wants the perfect family too. But the reality is that working in the City usually requires choosing between family and career.

In fact, taking time out to have children is the biggest factor stopping women making up a larger proportion of the top jobs, according to a poll of 105 female directors carried out by Praxis Executive Resourcing. One respondent, who remained nameless, said, “It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman – getting a board position isn’t easy. It takes a willingness to make a lot of sacrifices, particularly in your personal life. A lot of my female colleagues just aren’t willing to do that. Rightly or wrongly, they’re more interested in achieving a balance between work and their personal life.”

Work/life balance aside, the pay gap in the City is huge, with most women at board level earning up to 60% less than their male counterparts. It’s not surprising that many ambitious women are becoming disillusioned. But the reasons aren’t purely financial. Some women are shunning the career ladder simply because they want to be a housewife.

While the early Noughties was dominated by ‘Blair’s Babes’, things have changed. Our new government has less than half the numbers of women in Tony Blair’s government and it is domestic goddesses like Nigella Lawson who we’re emulating. But before you assume this is a step backwards, Karine Moe and Dianna Shandy, authors of the Glass Ceilings And 100-Hour Couples study on work and family, found that women didn’t feel they were abandoning their feminist beliefs just because they wanted to raise a family.

Instead, they believed that having the choice between a family or a career is what being a modern women is all about. Smashing the glass ceiling and making our mark in the boardroom might once have been the goal, but for many women, 2010 is about choice. And whether that means the boardroom or being a housewife or an entrepreneur, we can still call that progress.

Photo by Getty Images

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