Companies must try harder to get more women into the boardroom

A report suggests businesses must try harder - and start earlier - if they want to ensure greater equality.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 10 Mar 2011

With the world and its mother celebrating International Women’s Day on Tuesday, no doubt Lord Davies’s report on how to boost the number of female directors remains uppermost in your mind. There’s been some pretty fierce debate about whether or not quotas are the answer (Davies’ conclusion, to refresh your memory, was basically ‘no - or at least not yet’). But a new survey by HSBC has gone straight to the heart of the matter, asking a group of high-flying women what they think would smooth the road to the boardroom. Their conclusion? That companies need to try harder...

The survey, of 258 businesswomen across the UK, Asia and the US began by asking whose responsibility it should be to encourage girls to consider business as a career option. The response was clear: more than half said it’s up to businesses themselves. In the UK, a quarter felt it was down to schools, while parents, the Government and the media came in third, fourth and fifth places (though it's debatable whether shows like the The Apprentice fall into the ‘encouraging’ or ‘massively off-putting’ category).

So what do women need to become more successful? In the UK and the US, the majority believed it was just that they need a wider range of career opportunities. Companies again, then. Perhaps surprisingly, additional training on ‘soft skills’ like negotiation, assertiveness and communication only came second, with 16% of the vote – suggesting that it’s not really a lack of confidence that's holding women back.

The greater role Women play in childcare is one of the reasons often cited for inequalities in the boardroom, but there isn't much sign that a change is imminent. At best, said 60% of the women surveyed, in the future, responsibilities will be shared equally between men and women. Just 3% said it’s going to be a total role reversal (although none of those votes came from the UK – suggesting that we’re nothing, if not realistic…).

But while HSBC has been doing its bit to promote greater boardroom equality, one of its rivals has just parted company with one of the most senior female figures in UK banking. Helen Weir, the head of Lloyds' retail division, is leaving the bank as part of a boardroom shake-up instituted by new CEO Antonio Horta-Osorio. Lloyds' Spanish boss hasn't wasted any time - he only started last week - but judging by his cost-cutting record at Santander, he's never been afraid to wield the axe.

As one of the people passed over for the top job, it's not surprising to see Weir (along with insurance boss Archie Kane) on her way out now the new man's in place. But her recent appearance in front of the Treasury Select Committee - when she insisted that customers knew how much their current account cost them, only to then admit that she didn't know how much her own cost - probably won't have done her chances of bagging a big new job any favours. Still, we've no doubt she'll be back.

And as for Lloyds, it could have been worse - at least the news came out the day after International Women's Day...

- Talking of women at the top, MT has begun its annual hunt for the UK's top 35 businesswomen under 35. If you're one of them - or you know someone who is - please let us know.

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