Can women have it all? That perennial question has taken on a new form in corporate Britain, where investors are asking whether a handful of women can scoop up all the directorships.
They are known as the ‘Golden Skirts’, which sounds sexist – because it is, even though it was coined in politically correct Norway where there are boardroom quotas for women and then adopted by cerebral magazine The Economist.
The phenomenon came about because Norwegian companies felt there was a shortage of suitable females to fill their quotas, so a small group of elite women were offered the lion’s share of the jobs.
‘Golden Trousers’ are actually a far bigger problem than Golden Skirts, says Ruth Sunderland
The label ‘Golden Skirts’ implies it is the women themselves who are somehow to blame for this situation.
Not true. The real culprits are executives – often, but not always male – who have failed to help women reach their full potential at work, failed to introduce family-friendly policies, and who have lacked the imagination to cast their nets wider when hiring.
In this country, we have steered clear of gender quotas.
But a Government-backed campaign to increase the number of female directors set a target of 33 per cent by 2020.
Firms are scrambling to meet that goal and have stumbled into the Norwegian trap of all trying to hire the same tiny cohort of candidates deemed suitable in spite of their womanhood.
But the issue of ‘overboarding’ – another choice bit of corporate jargon describing bosses who have too many directorships – is one for both genders.
‘Golden Trousers’ are actually a far bigger problem than Golden Skirts.
Anita Frew, for example, is one highly regarded woman with a clutch of top directorships, earning around £800,000 a year from her roles as chairman of chemicals group Croda, deputy chair of Lloyds banking group and non-executive at miner BHP Billiton.
But a boardroom analysis conducted last autumn by The Mail on Sunday found many more men who have multiple directorships at big companies, including half a dozen who were holding two FTSE 100 chairmanships at once.
There is no formal prohibition on the same person chairing two Footsie companies. Many shareholders don’t like it, however, because they fear if there is a sticky situation at one or both of the businesses, the chairman might not have enough time to sort it out properly. As it happens, some of the ‘two jobs’ brigade did have a lot on their plate.
‘Overboarding’: Donald Brydon was chair of software group Sage and the London Stock Exchange while the latter was in merger talks with Deutsche Boerse
Mike Turner was a busy man, chairing engineer Babcock (which subsequently dropped out of the blue-chip index) as well as leading the board at GKN when it unsuccessfully tried to fight a hostile bid from Melrose.
Donald Brydon was chair of software group Sage and the London Stock Exchange while the latter was in merger talks with Deutsche Boerse. He then found himself under assault from activist investor TCI.
Roberto Quarta is currently in the chair at medical supplies group Smith & Nephew at the same time as trying to find a successor to Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP.
No doubt these men are supremely talented. Yet it does rather beg the question of whether there really is such a dire drought of potential chairmen that it is impossible even to find a hundred of them without having to double up.
If there is genuinely such a skills shortage, then it is a big indictment.
A look at who chairs FTSE 100 companies is revealing. At the time of our analysis last year there were 15 ‘Sirs’; 13 men named John, four men called ‘Sir John’ and four women.
This suggests there is not only a problem with sexism, but with resistance to change, lack of openness and group-think.
It doesn’t sound like a recipe for innovation and growth.