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Bringing business to heel: why are so few women on corporate boards?

The gnashing of teeth over why there are so few women on UK
corporate boards goes on. Discussing the rise of 3i’s Julia Wilson to group FD
from deputy FD in our October 2008 issue we mused on an apparent ‘one in, one
out’ policy for female FDs because their number among the FTSE-100 and FTSE-250
changes so little ­ but in the last three years, it has actually decreased.

There are nine female group FDs between the two indices; in 2008 there were
10 and in 2007 there were 12. But the stats don’t tell the whole story. While
the number of women FDs at the top has shrunk, it is often a consequence of a
move out of finance and into other board-level roles. Some women FDs are being
selected for the most difficult jobs ­ the recovery plays, the transformational
event periods, when a strong hand and abundant confidence is critical.

Success stories
Lloyds Banking Group’s Helen Weir, 3i’s Julia Wilson and Cairn Energy’s Jann
Brown are the most prominent successes. Weir dropped out of the ranking when she
moved from FD to executive director of its UK retail banking business ­ her
successor is her deputy, Tim Tookey ­ the intent to groom her for the CEO spot,
which could happen when the group emerges from public ownership and would be a
headline role. Julia Wilson was promoted to group FD of private equity group 3i
six months later, having served as deputy FD since 2006, just when the fortunes
of the group changed dramatically and for the worse.

Cairn Energy’s Jann Brown has shared one of the two top spots for women FDs
in the FTSE-100 since 2006 when she moved from her job as FC; first on her list
was the spinout and flotation of its important Indian business (she also worked
to get the company back into the FTSE-100 when it was demoted in 2007).

FTSE-250 FDs such as Detica’s Mandy Gradden have gone through interesting
times. She joined Torex as CFO in May, two years after a Serious Fraud Office
investigation into accounting irregularities at the tech outfit. Rosemary Thorne
left Ladbrokes just a year into her FD job by ‘mutual consent’ and did not
re-emerge in another FD role, but went on to non-executive spots with Abbey
National and Smurfit Kappa Group. Might we see even fewer women FDs in our 2010
survey ­ because the best have moved into CEO roles?

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