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Getting women on the board

PUBLISHED: 13:24 16 September 2013 | UPDATED: 13:24 16 September 2013

Diane Savory and Diane Pitts

Diane Savory and Diane Pitts

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Why are there not more women in British company boardrooms? We discussed the issue with two successful professionals ahead of a substantial report in November’s Business & Professional Life

A Cranfield School of Management study published earlier this year shows that women make up just 17% of board posts, well below the 25% government target, but should the Government set quotas for women in the boardroom?

For Diane Savory, formerly Board Director and Chief Operating Officer of British retail success story SuperGroup, setting quotas is irrelevant. “You’ve got to be fit for the job, and if you’re not fit, you’re likely to be annihilated in the first board meeting.” For 20 years Diane worked alongside SuperGroup founder Julian Dunkerton, growing the business before successfully floating it on the London Stock Exchange in 2010. Diane is now Chair of Gloucestershire’s Local Enterprise Partnership and was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year.

Diane Pitts is one of Handelsbanken’s most successful branch managers, having established its branch in Cheltenham in 2011, and grown it significantly. “The glass ceiling certainly used to be perceived as being lower for women than men but I don’t think that’s still the case. While some women see men moving along the career ladder faster, each job should be a foundation for the next.”

There is of course the irrefutable issue that only women can have children and to do so they will have to take a career break, even if it’s only a matter of a few weeks or months, which is likely to affect their upwardly mobile rise to the boardroom. Few follow the example of Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg who worked through her pregnancy.

The corporate world of banking is a little kinder, in the provinces anyway. Diane Pitts took a five-year break, though she admits it was a career risk. She also had a sponsor within the bank, a man who believed in what she could do and backed her when she returned to work.

But in the entrepreneurial, take-no-prisoners world of fashion retailing and social media Savory sympathises with Sandberg. “A five-year break would have affected my career. The company was growing so fast I’d have been left behind.”

Some women have, to a certain extent, overcome this by putting off having children until their career is established, but not everyone wants toddlers around their ankles when they’re in their mid 40s with the prospect of still paying university fees well into their 60s.

Putting this issue aside, what can women bring to a boardroom? Both Savory and Pitts agree that women often have greater emotional intelligence than male counterparts, able to think intelligently about their own and others emotions and consider how they influence thoughts and behaviours at work. Such intelligence is likely to get the best out of a company’s employees and is an asset in a macho boardroom environment.

Pitts explains: “Women speak differently to men. It doesn’t mean we are not clear about what we want and how we do it, but we do things differently.” Savory agrees: “We deal with situations in a less confrontational way, often achieving better results. But I was never afraid to face up to fellow directors or staff if need be, and women can multi task better than men.”

There are other examples of successful women on the board. Angela Ahrendts, chief executive of British luxury brand Burberry has turned the company from ‘chav’ to ‘have’, earning herself a huge pay packet. This highlights another issue: equal pay for women. According to PricewaterhouseCooper’s Women in Work Index, the UK ranked 18th out of 27 OECD countries in 2011 on equal pay, female unemployment and part time working.

What a waste of talent. If half the workforce isn’t being given the opportunities of the other, more women must fight their corner, and women do have one powerful advantage in a sea of monochrome-suited men, they have many opportunities to stand out by using the way they dress to set them apart – and it doesn’t have to be Burberry.

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