Eleanor Mills: Go on, sponsor a woman

8th December,2010. Outside Tate Britain the limousines are parked four deep; engines hum as the chauffeurs await their charges. Inside the gallery the bosses swig champagne and scoff prawn tempura at a party hosted by one of the City’s leading PR firms. Many chairmen and chief executives of Britain’s blue-chip companies are here, attended by media bigwigs, politicians and fixers. The powerful are at play — and the sea of grey and navy suits reveals a stark truth: this is a man’s world.

There are a few women, of course. They stand out, their hair and dresses startling splashes of plumage. A few are as powerful as the chaps — they glide, like queens holding court; the other females are journalists, advisers or the blondes working for the hosts who bring drinks and orchestrate introductions.

British business knows it has a problem. Only five of the FTSE 100 companies have a female chief executive; a pathetic 12% of board directors are women; and nearly a quarter of top companies have nobody from the fairer sex on their boards. Change must come. Other countries have introduced legal quotas — Norway, for instance, requires 40% of company directors to be women. The European Union is threatening Britain with that kind of legislation if it doesn’t recruit some girl power quick.

Next month Lord Davies of Abersoch will outline to parliament how to increase the proportion of women on boards.

The pressure is to do so without resorting to quotas — a bad idea because that kind of positive discrimination makes women look like diversity tokens, undermining the idea that they are there on merit. Looking down the barrel of the quota gun, a cohort of the City’s most powerful men last week launched the 30% Club: its aim is to ensure that by 2015 company boards are a third female.

At the Tate I chatted to Roger Carr, chairman of Centrica, a grey-haired oldschool gent who is leading the charge. He explained how boards make better decisions for their customers if women — who, after all, make up more than half the British population — are on them. Why aren’t he and his ilk hiring them? The problem, apparently, is Catch-22-like, in that you are likely to be appointed to a board only if you’ve already been on one, and lots of wellqualified women in the marzipan layer (just below the top) don’t have the right kind of experience or, if they do, aren’t networking enough or aren’t on the radar of the right headhunters (board vacancies are rarely advertised).

Research from the Centre for Work-Life Policy in America suggests a powerful missing link for many women within reach of the summit is a sponsor further up the corporate hierarchy to give their career a push at the crucial moment. Sylvia Hewlett, who did the research, blames this lack of sponsorship on a mix of “trust and testosterone”. The trust aspect is that women only rarely get the kind of blunt performance feedback their male peers receive as a matter of course. And testosterone? Hewlett found that 64% of senior men were wary of sponsoring a talented young woman for fear of it looking like an office affair. Long, cosy, confidence-boosting lunches, however well intentioned, have a nasty habit of being misinterpreted in gossipy, competitive workplaces.

However, an initiative by a group of FTSE 100 luminaries (begun by Peninah Thomson, an executive coach) is trying to help likely ladies across this chasm. Thomson has lined up a group of top men to sponsor high-flying marzipanlayer women. A pal of mine is one of them. The sponsoring takes place over lunch with her chairman four times a year. She likes him; he is tough, down to earth and in his forties (some of the others are more buffoon/bufferish). She unburdens herself about her ambitions and work politics; he advises but also tells her about his dilemmas and mistakes.

Finding out how someone so successful has overcome his own share of disasters and how he wrestles with dayto-day horrors has demystified the role for her.

His advice? Be more direct. Women waffle. Don’t. If you want a big job, ask for it. If you’re in a meeting and have a good idea, spit it out. Don’t gently try to create a consensus (a female way of operating); make a solid suggestion and own it. At the top, the air is thin. Big beasts are good at taking credit for their ideas; women often fail to do that and so forgo the recognition they deserve. My friend has learnt how to play executive hardball at the highest level.

It is not only about sponsorship and office politics. Many talented, clever women bow out because they aren’t prepared to sacrifice their family life on the altar of ambition. At board level, jobs are extreme; the travel, the hours and the BlackBerry culture mean nothing is sacred. In their twenties, men and women are level pegging in the corporate world; when children enter the equation, it changes. However tough and talented the woman, if it’s a choice between a seat on the board and never making bedtime, most women choose bedtime, for a few years anyway.

A little flexibility about such dilemmas can pay big dividends for businesses.

If you can keep talented women in the workforce when their children are young, there will be a much bigger pool to make it into the boardroom later. Enlightened companies know this; as women rise through the ranks, they spread the word and show it can be done.

At the top, though, machismo still reigns. The deal is all, and presenteeism rules. For a mother, or anyone with commitments outside, it is nigh impossible. “They just don’t get it,” a super-powered mother told me sadly. “These guys all have full-time wives. They are so insulated from the reality of family life, it just never occurs to them I might really need to be there for my sick child.” Partly, she says, this is because many of these men are older and know no other way. With so few women in senior positions, she doesn’t feel confident enough to ask the chairman for an exeat or permission to work from home.

“Leaders throw a large shadow,” she says. “If they led from the front, showing a bit of humanity was allowable, that would do a huge amount to change the culture. After all, if I was on a plane to China, I wouldn’t be in the office; why is it so different to be on a BlackBerry at home?” Women should be judged on effectiveness, not just presenteeism. Until that happens, sponsors or no sponsors, the number of women who want to be at the top will remain depressingly small.

eleanormills@sunday-times.co.uk’The advice to women is be more direct. Don’t waffle. If you want a big job, ask for it’

In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep played a woman who had risen to the top in the workplace— but her like are too few and far between