Women in top jobs not a priority for shareholders, MPs told

Investors more interested in green issues than gender equality, companies say

Shareholders are more concerned about environmental issues than promoting women to senior positions in boardrooms and some are not convinced that businesses need more women in top jobs, company executives have told MPs.

At a hearing on women in executive management, the House of Commons’ women and equalities committee quizzed representatives from the water company Severn Trent, packaging company Smurfit Kappa, car parts and bike retailer Halfords, the infrastructure firm Stobart Group and housebuilder Persimmon.

All said investors asked more questions about the environment and sustainability than how to get more women into boardrooms.

Sarah Bentley, the chief customer officer at Severn Trent, whose chief executive is Liv Garfield – one of only six female FTSE 100 CEOs – said some shareholders had yet to be convinced of the benefits of having more women in executive roles.

Bentley said a number of investors recognised that having a more diverse executive team added value, but said: “I wouldn’t say that’s true of all of our investors.” She added: “Obviously investors care about the performance of the business ... We’ve obviously got quite a lot of female talent. They want to make sure that we’ve got the right quality and calibre of talent.”

Jonathan Crookall, the people director at Halfords, said: “It’s a growing topic but it’s not at the top of the agenda yet.”

Analysis from Cranfield University this week showed a sharp drop in the number of women holding the most senior jobs at FTSE 250 firms, and static numbers at FTSE 100 companies. There are only six female CEOs in the FTSE 250 and the number of all-male boards has risen to 10.

Several of the executives stressed the importance of mentoring, and Bentley revealed she was receiving mentoring to prepare for a CEO role.

In a pointed exchange, the Conservative chair of the committee, Maria Miller, asked Gianluca Castellini, the vice-president of HR at Smurfit Kappa, why the firm was taking so long to find two more women to sit on its 12-strong board – out of a workforce of 46,000 – to meet the target of 33% women on its board by 2020 set by the government-backed Alexander-Hampton review. Castellini replied that “everything must be based on meritocracy”.

Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, said in reality appointments were often not based on meritocracy and that “the systems in place are skewed towards one type of people, usually men”.

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Stobart Group is one of 10 FTSE 250 firms with all-male boards. Kate Willard, its head of corporate projects, told MPs the company was in the process of rectifying this as it recruits a new chair, chief financial officer and two non-executive directors.

Richard Latham, the HR director of Persimmon, defended the housebuilder’s record on female appointments, despite the lack of female executive directors on its board. He said 83% of the company’s sales team was female, and 40% of designers and planners.


Julia Kollewe

The GuardianTramp

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