Companies are under fire for appointing the same small group of female directors to a string of boardroom jobs, raising concerns over the rise of the ‘Golden Skirts’.
Firms are under mounting pressure to appoint more women to their boards. This has led to a handful of highly qualified female bosses being in heavy demand and holding multiple directorships.
The trend has become so pronounced that many investors now fear that some female directors may be overstretched.
Busy: Dr Marion Helmes is accused of serving ‘on too many boards’
The term Golden Skirts originated in Norway, which a decade ago forced companies to increase the number of women on boards to 40 per cent by law. Many firms claimed there were too few qualified females to fulfil the quotas.
The phrase was later enshrined in the work of Norwegian academic Professor Morten Huse. It has subsequently been picked up by business publications including The Economist.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that shareholder advisory bodies ISS and Glass Lewis have urged investors to vote against Dr Marion Helmes being reappointed as a non-executive director of British American Tobacco at the FTSE 100 stalwart’s annual meeting in London on Wednesday.
ISS, which describes the German businesswoman as a ‘professional director’, said: ‘Aside from being a non-executive director at British American Tobacco, Marion Helmes is also a director at six other companies.’
It said even after stepping down from her role at German engineering firm Bilfinger later this year ‘she will have six positions in aggregate and each of these companies are very large, therefore raising questions regarding her ability to devote sufficient time to her role at British American Tobacco’.
ISS added that Helmes had not turned up to a BAT board meeting in February nor to a crucial meeting to approve the £40billion takeover of US rival Reynolds, ‘due to prior commitments’.
Advisory group Glass Lewis bluntly said the 52-year-old ‘serves on too many boards’. It added: ‘We believe that a non-executive director of a FTSE 350-listed company should retain some spare capacity in case a crisis or other event escalates the demand on their time.’
Helmes is also on the boards of German firms ProSiebenSat.1 Media, Uniper and Siemens Healthineers as well as Dutch companies Heineken and NXP Semiconductors.
After being contacted by The Mail on Sunday, A BAT spokesman said Helmes will step down from the board of another company, leaving her with five directorships, which it said Glass Lewis and ISS consider an ‘acceptable’ number.
There was a similar Golden Skirts revolt last year when almost 40 per cent of shareholders in catering giant Compass Group voted against the re-election of Ireena Vittal. Almost one in five voted against her this year.
Even after shedding three of her board seats, which she plans to do by June, Vittal will still be a director of five firms plus Compass.
THE GOLDEN SKIRTS
Boards: Non-executive director at Schroders, Kingfisher, Intu, Rightmove and Be Heard Group
Background: Prolific director who owns a vineyard in Berkshire with husband Daniel
Lesley ‘Opportunity’ Knox
Boards: Legal & General, Thomas Cook, chair of Grosvenor Group and two private companies
Pay: At least £256,000
Background: Once said of sexism in the City: ‘I’ve had lots of experiences that these days you could sue for.’ Married to Brian with daughter Fenella
Deanna ‘The Banker’ Oppenheimer
Boards: Chair at Hargreaves Lansdown and director at Tesco, Whitbread, Axa, Joshua Green Corp and Vettd
Pay: At least £316,000
Background: Tipped for top at Barclays before departing to turn professional boardroom director
Susan ‘Deal Queen’ Kilsby
Boards: Chairman of drug-maker Shire, director of Diageo, Goldman Sachs International, BBA Aviation and Fortune Brands Home & Security Inc
Pay: At least £718,000
Background: At helm of Shire as suitors circle the £40bn drugs giant
Gwyn ‘Six Jobs’ Burr
Board roles: Six including Just Eat, Hammerson, Taylor Wimpey, Sainsbury’s Bank, German retail group Metro and Ingleby Farms.
Pay: At least £200,000
Background: At Asda during one of the most historic turnarounds in UK corporate history
Other women with a number of seats on high-profile boards include 44-year-old Rakhi Goss-Custard. She is a non-executive director at two FTSE 100 companies – fund manager Schroders and DIY group Kingfisher.
She also has board positions at shopping centre owner Intu, online property group Rightmove and digital marketing firm Be Heard Group. Goss-Custard, who owns a vineyard in Berkshire with her husband Daniel, has not held an executive position since she left a senior post at Amazon in 2014.
A review in 2015, led by former Standard Chartered chairman Lord Davies, led to a call for firms to promote more women to senior positions just below the board.
This would have created a reservoir of women who could later progress to boardroom posts, but there are still too few females breaking into this tier.
According to Cranfield University, women accounted for 33 per cent of FTSE 100 non-executive directors last year – up from 15 per cent in 2007.
By comparison, only 10 per cent of executive board directors and just 7 per cent of chief executives are women. In 2007, those figures were 4 per cent and 3 per cent respectively.
Cranfield’s Professor Sue Vinnicombe said: ‘I don’t think the issue is a lack of talented women, but women don’t have the same corporate careers as men.’ Prof Vinnicombe insisted that efforts to increase women on boards have sought to avoid the ‘Golden Skirts’ effect.
She added: ‘The idea was to broaden the talent pool and not just to give all of the important jobs to the same group of women.’