BOOKS: Women stake their claim - There are too few women in UK boardrooms, but this study discovers female execs charting new routes to the top. Sarah Hogg finds reasons to be cheerful

BOOKS: Women stake their claim - There are too few women in UK boardrooms, but this study discovers female execs charting new routes to the top. Sarah Hogg finds reasons to be cheerful - Powerful Women: Dancing on the Glass Ceiling; By Sam Parkhouse; John

by SARAH HOGG
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Powerful Women: Dancing on the Glass Ceiling; By Sam Parkhouse; John Wiley; pounds 12.99

So many human rockets end up as spent cartridges on the floor of history that super-success stories rarely survive translation into print. But Sam Parkhouse has chosen his time excellently. So many women are staking out new business territory that a few dot.bombed Kajsa Leanders cannot detract from the story. If it may no longer be true that Anita Roddick is 'the most famous businesswoman in the world' (surely more career women in the US would have heard of Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard?), there are plenty of up-and-coming names in this fascinating compendium.

Once, Dame Steve Shirley was a remarkable exception; today it is estimated that roughly one third of start-ups are led or driven by women entrepreneurs. Marjorie Scardino, the first female CEO in the FTSE-100, tops a widening pyramid of women executives and entrepreneurs listed in this book: Barbara Cassani, Dianne Thompson, Gail Rebuck, Hilary Cropper, Anna Mann, Beverley Hodson. More than one major UK company has a woman as finance director. As Parkhouse notes, corporate affairs, embracing everything from regulation to investor relations, is a fertile field - to his list of distinguished practitioners I would add Lucy Neville-Rolfe at Tesco and Liz Hewitt at 3i.

New female first ascents are recorded almost daily. When 3i announced that I was to be its next chairman and the press spotted that I'd be the first woman to hold such a post in a FTSE-100 company, the general reaction was surprise that no woman had made it before.

Parkhouse has the refreshingly simple objective of recording inspirational stories rather than analysing their causes and consequences: he is more topographer than sociologist. But he points up a transatlantic question: why has Britain lagged behind the US, to the extent that it often took American women to break the barriers in Britain? Is it, as he suggests, that 'bosswomen' prove more acceptable in American business culture? Or is it a deeper cultural difference, affecting everything from the education system upwards?

Parkhouse gives the wooden spoon to the City, yet he still finds female role models beyond the best-known names of Carol Galley and Nicola Horlick.

So too among 'media queens', where he might have spared more of a thought for financial journalism, starting with the admirable Patience Wheatcroft of The Times (and MT). He is on less sure ground in Westminster, focusing a little too much on Baroness Jay - who has, after all, never been through the mill of parliamentary election. And the civil service deserves more attention: despite a rich talent pool it has still brought few women to the top. Notably, in Rachel Lomax it now has at least one potential Cabinet Secretary.

So has everything changed? Well, no: women are not yet 'dancing on the glass ceiling', as Parkhouse's delightful sub-title suggests. Girls may be outpacing boys at school, but there are still few of them in Britain's boardrooms. Of those in which I have sat, only in the public sector (the BBC, the National Theatre and a Special Health Authority) was there another woman on the board.

Today's executives will provide a richer pool of potential non-execs, but there are still gaps. Many professional firms have been slow to adapt their partnership structures to help women through family-rearing breaks.

A more demanding work environment, longer hours, global travel requirements - all these have in some ways made it harder for young women than for my generation. Talk of 'having it all' has led to absurd expectations.

Any woman who has survived the dual demands of career and children knows how much hinges on good luck, good partners, parents and friends.

Those superwomen who survive probably do so because they are not clones of each other. The men who still (by and large) make the appointments are learning to look for different qualities in women, just as they would among men. This book cheerfully demonstrates this range, and may do more to encourage women to the top than the most meticulous social analysis of their lot.

Baroness Hogg becomes chairman of 3i in January.

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