Editorial: Impressive ascent of woman

Advancing without much grace into the greying years of my mid-forties, I feel a sense of envy looking at the pages of our '35 Women Under 35' feature. Bliss it would be to knock nine years off my tally - although I think, all things considered, given the choice of returning to the moment of conception, I'd still come back a bloke.

by Matthew Gwyther, mt editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How on earth some of these young women manage to pack so much into their lives both at work and outside the office is anyone's guess. And their ascent of the corporate ladder seems to be at twice the speed it was even 20 years ago. Are they felled by ennui or burnout before they hit forty? They certainly do things their way - which isn't always the same way as their male counterparts.

Our 35 are the creme de la creme of young UK female business talent, but just how far are women in general advancing up the business ladder? Are they still pushing against the glass ceiling or plummeting like lemmings from the XX-chromosome cliff? We asked BoardEx, the corporate research company, to take a look at the number of company directors under the age of 35 in the UK. Among a sample of 1,050 Stock Exchange-listed and AIM companies, they found a total of 114 directors still enjoying this flush of youth. One hundred of these individuals were male (88%) and a mere 14 were female (just 12%). This is not hugely impressive, although at least this latter statistic is up from the 8.5% result when we last compiled the '35 Under 35' two years ago. These figures indicate that there remains a need for MT to continue running features of this sort for some time to come.

Two organisations that are highly enlightened in their attitudes towards female staff are also featured in this month's edition: the John Lewis Partnership and Arup. John Lewis employs 70,000 people, Arup a 10th of that figure, but both are powerful brands, well regarded in their respective fields of retail and engineering, and both are commercially high-achieving organisations. But you won't find either in BoardEx's listed categories, because these are employee-owned outfits.

Looked at from the outside, this method of ownership looks most attractive. At John Lewis, you're not staff, you're a partner. You have a say in how the organisation is run and you get a share of the profits. And after 25 years behind the counter, you receive six months' paid leave - which beats a gold watch any day. Ove Arup, who founded a firm and gave it away to the staff under a trust, wrote: 'Our (aim is) the creation of an organisation which is human and friendly in spite of being large and efficient. Where every member is treated as a human being whose happiness is the concern of all.' And if it makes a good profit, so much the better.

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