When Business Secretary Vince Cable hosted a gala dinner in London for some of the biggest figures in the UK commercial world, he told his well-heeled audience of both men and women that “outstanding” progress had been made in getting more women into the boardroom.
Dr Cable’s enthusiasm came four years after the Government set UK businesses a target to bring more diversity into the boardroom, after it emerged only 12% of company board members were women.
A report by Lord Davies of Abersoch called for that disappointing figure to more than double to 25% by the end of 2015, and we will learn this month if that goal has been reached when the latest Female FTSE Board Report from Cranfield School of Management is published.
A progress report unveiled in November showed we are well on the way. So far, 36 firms in the FTSE 100 have already reached the 25% target and a further 19 companies had between 20 and 25% female directors, leading Lord Davies to say that “the voluntary approach is working and companies have got the message that better balanced boards bring real business benefits.”
Doubling the number of female directors in four years is an obvious cause for celebration, though some commentators have pointed out that 25% representation is some way short of equality. Others contrast the approach taken in Germany - an economy not known for saddling businesses with needless bureaucracy - which last week passed a law putting a legal obligation on large businesses to have at least 30% of women as non-executive members.
Brenda Davidson, managing partner of North East legal firm Hewitts Solicitors, sees some positives in the strides that have been made, saying that her firm employs far more women today in its five regional offices than it did when it was established in the 1950s.
“If you look at the firm’s profile in the 1950s it was started by three men and was a very male-dominated practice,” said Brenda.
“But the balance now is very much 50/50 in the board room and we have a very strong presence of female lawyers.
“If, overall, businesses can get to 25% that will be very good on one level, but on another level it’s far too low in real terms.
“I don’t think it matters what gender you are – as a board room you might be losing out on skills that are already there in the business, so if you can bring in more diverse groups it will be a more effective business.
“The best way forward is to bring in women already in the organisation, who know the business and can approach it in a different way.
“I think we are working on it slowly, and the more women you get in the board room the more likely it is that they will leave the door open behind for others, to allow more to come through – so as you increase the number the trickle will turn into a flow.”
Valda Goodfellow, however, believes the report could be misleading – and suggests that more women are finding the confidence to go it alone in business, and shunning the corporate structures.
A former Business Link adviser, Mrs Goodfellow ran Lazenby’s gourmet sausage company on Teesside until teaming up with her husband Paul, with whom she runs luxury catering and kitchen equipment supplier Goodfellow and Goodfellow, based in Peterlee, County Durham.
She said: “I just think corporate cultures are largely designed and shaped by men and always have been. They are therefore self-propagating.
“If you read between the lines of the Cranfield report the rate of Executive Directorship appointments for women has actually decreased.
“Given the rise has been in non executive directorships, does this really spell good news or are these companies cynically appointing women to tick a box, but not in places they matter?
“I think the downward trend in executive directorship women appointments is more worrying than the supposed good news. It would be interesting to correlate this with the number of female business owners.
“Maybe women are just sick of the futility of male-dominated corporate culture and choose to put their energy into their own businesses. If this is true, then the majority of large organisations will be in big trouble at some point.
“However, I think part of the problem is that corporations expect that they will have to support women through their careers.
“I don’t think it’s feasible for demanding roles to be flexed to accommodate women. What is actually missing is the mutually-supporting network that men count on to climb up the ladder. Unless women generate this themselves, then they are never going to be able to get that much further.”
In the North East, some women are responding to this need for support networks, and capitalising on the soaring use of social media to do that, instigating face-to-face contact and online support.
Traditional images of boys’ club meetings on the golf course, over red-eye breakfast meetings, at the footie or down the pub are swapped with informal networks to support and mentor rising female stars in the business world.
Regular meetings, events or awards hosted by the National Women’s Network, Durham Business Club, North East Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Advisory Board and WIN Ltd play a huge role.
So do business angels, such as Newcastle-based investment group Gabriel Investors, a group of successful businesswomen who came together to support growing businesses, of which Valda Goodfellow has been a member.
“As a group, they had great worth in just their support of each other,” she said. “That’s what I would like to see more of. I had to retire from the group because of the demands on my time, but I really miss them as people.
“They are all really strong, like-minded individuals, who have immense talent and all successful in their own right.
“More than that, they have a great empathy with people who are trying to succeed. I think empathy mixed with talent and experience is a powerful combination that women can actually work on developing.”
Earlier this month also saw the launch of North East Foundation for Women in Enterprise, which has kick-started a fund to help women across the region develop their businesses.
The foundation is already acting as an umbrella organisation for Assist, Women What Do and the Stockton Business Women’s Network, and they are now looking for other businesswomen’s networking groups to get involved.
Brenda Davidson was one of the key people involved in the creation of the foundation, hosting the launch event at Wynyard Hall last week – a ‘High Tea with Hewitts’ afternoon which saw more than 170 female entrepreneurs come together at the biggest women-only networking event in the North East, which raised thousands of pounds into the bargain which will be donated to growing firms.
“We decided we wanted to create a business-to-business network,” said Mrs Davidson.
“Women don’t network on the golf course and there are also a lot of 6am to 6.30am breakfast meetings but we want to make networking more accessible for women.
“Women in business like to get to know each other, get to know the businesses and establish a level of trust – it’s not about ticking boxes and quickly moving on.
“I definitely think social media has a part to play too, as a great form for women to access support from each other at any time.
“Hewitts’ business motto is ‘stronger together’, and that’s a maxim which could equally apply to the North-East Foundation for Women in Enterprise. Our region has a vibrant women-in-business community and we are glad to be supporting such an exciting initiative.”
Networking events aren’t convenient for all, however, which is why the explosion of social media in recent times has provided a godsend, delivering a superlatively accessible route to an endless supply of advice.
Engaging with other women through the use of hashtags – such as #womeninbiz and #northeasthour – lucrative connections are being made every day.
Consultant Amanda Dixon, of Gateshead, provides businesses across the North East with social media training, and is a firm believer that its exponential rise has opened new doors for women.
She said: “I believe women network far more actively than men and there’s so many more ways we can do that now. There’s a lot more emphasis on social media now, and it really does bear fruit.
“Through the likes of Facebook and Twitter you can get to know people and build relationships with them, and businesses can also get their message out there.
“I’m a member of a lot of networks and some have meetings where you can take children along – that’s a great help if you’re a mum also running a business, and it was never around when I first started out.
“A large part of business interaction takes place after typical 9 to 5 hours too, thanks to Facebook groups like the Inspire Network which has almost 5,000 members across the North East.”
She added: “There’s no denying that women prefer working ‘human to human’ but the increasing number of online support networks show that there’s a whole mix of ways women can exploit to create their own club.”