Dame Alison Carnwath, who chairs property group Land Securities and is the only female chairman in the FTSE 100, has called on companies to allow women to take family-friendly career breaks of up to six years.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Carnwath said employers should recognise the benefits of holding on to their best female staff through child-rearing and beyond.
‘If you want to spend, say, six years having children and getting them off to school before you come back and do full-time work, [companies] have to look upon it as not wanting to lose somebody.’
The benefits are not only economic, she said – retaining key staff also creates a ‘continuity of culture.’
Dame Alison Carnwath is a former Barclays director who fought against former chief executive Bob Diamond's ‘obscene’ pay packet at the bank. She is currently the only chairwoman in the FTSE 100, heading up Land Securities, Britain’s biggest listed property company. However, her lonely position at the top will end in April when Susan Kilsby becomes chairman of pharmaceuticals group Shire.
Dame Alison’s comments come just weeks after Ukip leader Nigel Farage claimed that women who take time off work to have children are ‘worth less’ to City employers than men.
‘In many, many cases, women make different choices in life to the ones that men make simply for biological reasons,’ he said. ‘If a woman has a client base and has a child and takes two or three years off work, she is worth far less to the employer when she comes back than when she goes away because her client base cannot be stuck rigidly to her.’
Meanwhile Labour has said it could introduce quotas for women and ethnic minorities after a study revealed the UK's top firms are still suffering from a ‘diversity deficit’.
Analysis of 10,000 FTSE 100 executives found that only a dozen of the 289 top posts of chief executive, chairman or chief financial officer are held by women, and just ten by ethnic minorities.
More than half of the top stock market-listed companies have no non-white ‘leaders’ on the board and two-thirds have no full-time executives from minority groups at board level, according research by headhunters Green Park.
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said the research showed an 'undeniable and unacceptable' situation and warned a future Labour Government could, if elected, consider introducing boardroom quotas.
‘It is clear there is a pipeline of women and ethnic minority candidates, achieving the highest qualifications, who are available for the top jobs and merit appointment, but not nearly enough of them make it through,’ he said.
‘If we do not see enough progress on increasing diversity in our boardrooms, we could consider introducing more prescriptive measures, such as quotas, in a future Labour government.’