When the Financial Times chose a leading lady to be its star speaker for its FT Women At the Top summit earlier this week, the organisers could have had the pick of the bunch – women such as Carolyn McCall, about to run ITV after Easyjet, Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter and now chairman of the British Fashion Council or Moya Green, head of Royal Mail. But they went for Victoria Beckham.
The subject of the ‘Transforming Leadership’ conference was, according to the FT: “ one of the most complex challenges we face today: how to fix the gender imbalance in the top ranks of business in Britain and beyond.”
This is not a new problem but it’s one that remains relevant and worthy of the attention of eminent institutions like the Financial Times. Some of the smartest women I know work for the paper, and it has a good record of promoting women to influential jobs.
So should we – and indeed they – be disappointed that Victoria Beckham was given this important opportunity to give her views on such a tricky subject? It is certainly a win for brand Beckham. And the former Spice Girl will make a better fist of it than say Brand Kardashian.
But I am not convinced that the business model for building a brand which is based on your ability to self-publicise is the most helpful way forward – or an inspirational one – for most young women seeking to make their way in an increasingly complex business world.
Talk to any top headhunter and they will give you a myriad of reasons why women looking to climb the corporate ladder usually fall off about half-way. The reasons range from the abysmal quality of childcare in the UK to systemic and persistent bias. Ironically, the biggest problem is not promoting women to the boardroom but keeping them at the executive level: only about 9% of all FTSE 100 executives are of the fairer sex compared with about a quarter who are non-executive directors.
The problem is so acute that Andrew Roscoe of Egon Zehnder International believes that women should be measured for top jobs using different criteria to more accurately reflect their abilities. EZI is so worried about the lack of women being promoted to senior levels that it commissioned new research at Cambridge University to find out whether there is an endemic bias in the way companies go about their recruitment process.
For example, many excellent women are overlooked for senior positions because they have specialised in what are often described as the softer subjects – law, human resources and marketing – rather than finance. Yet finance is often the route to the top, and an obvious gene pool for sourcing top directors and CEOs.
Fewer women are less likely to apply for big overseas jobs in their companies- for all the obvious reasons. As many top jobs go to executives with overseas experience of running a subsidiary, once again women are ruled out of the running because of their lack of experience in that field, rather than a lack of potential talent.
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That’s why Roscoe argues corporates need to take a more radical approach, and find more sophisticated ways of measuring such as generic skills based on behavioural and other competences, rather than criteria first devised by the recruitment industry over 20 years ago. As he puts it, it’s not the how, but the what.
Then there is childcare. Carol Leonard, head of the board practise at the Inzito Partnership, argues that until the tax system is reformed to make it more economic to work, there won’t be any dramatic increase in female executives.
More worryingly, she says industry is being drained of talented young female – and increasingly male – leaders because it’s not worth them working as nannies or child-minders often end up with more than their employer. As she says, “What is it about this issue that people don’t understand?”
She’s right. And it’s interesting that many of the most senior women in British business that I have met over the years have a husband or partner, who stays at home to look after their children.
Nothing wrong with that; whatever works best for the family. What is wrong is that neither corporates nor government have made any meaningful efforts to improve childcare. Creating better arrangements for training childminders to nannies and cost-effective kindergartens have been ignored by policy-makers and companies alike for decades. They should visit the Geox shoe factory in Montebelluna in northern Italy to see how the chief executive set up the most amazing children’s creche for his staff, next door to the workplace.
Fixing the gender imbalance is hard, and if it is to be genuinely addressed, then it needs women to speak out who have real life experiences to draw on which have the power to inform and inspire; experiences which are far removed from Victoria Beckham’s.
Building a brand based on your appearance is not the same as building a business or making your way – and holding on – in a male-dominated business. And Beckham has little experience of working with anyone – apart from herself.
She owes most of her success to the genius music mogul, Simon Fuller, who owns a significant stake in several British fashion businesses including Victoria Beckham Ltd. She also has a fabulous and stellar network of celebrity supporters behind her as the head of a global fashion business. Everyone from Anna Wintour to The Duchess of York queue up to be photographed with her. She has also led the way in weaponising her children as a daily power point presentation in the service of the ‘brand’. How are young mothers juggling jobs supposed to deal with that kind of example.?
This isn’t a case to no platform Beckham. What she said was interesting, and it could have been worse: Kim Kardashian comes to mind. But there are only so many chances for talented and unbranded businesswomen to speak in front of such an influential audience. So it’s a shame that Beckham didn’t pass on the invite to someone else, and just turn up and sit in the front row to be photographed. And it’s disappointing to see that she felt the best way to make her point at the summit was to wear a see-through transparent black shirt.