Time to smash the glass ceiling

Last week, the FT reported on research by Spencer Stuart, an executive search company, into the diversity of S&P 500 company boards.

According to the research, over the last five years the top 500 US companies have not significantly increased the representation of women on their executive boards, with one in five companies continuing to be all-male bastions.

The article talks about women’s failure to break the glass ceiling. Is it, as usual, women’s fault? But what of corporate executives’ failure to ensure their boards are better balanced and actually reflect the demography of their shareholders and customers? While women make up 16 per cent of the S&P 500 boards, and minorities a further 15 per cent, 50 per cent of these companies claim to be actively seeking to promote both, according to Julie Daum, who headed the research for Spencer Stuart.

I recently interviewed Andrea Jung of Avon. Since Jung has been the company’s chief executive it has one of the most diverse workforces among S&P 500 companies. About 50 per cent of each of the top two layers of management comprises women, who also make up four of the nine members of Avon’s external board. “We have quite a formal structure for succession planning: all 150 top jobs in the company are reviewed regularly and shortlists for each one drawn up. There is an explicit expectation that those lists [will] include at least one woman,” Jung says. “I can’t say whether the next chief executive of Avon will be a woman, but I can say that women will be in the shortlist alongside men.”

Jung argues the business case as much as the ethical for constructing mixed management: “Dialogue and decision making are more robust [with diverse teams]. All-female teams wouldn’t work either,” Jung explains.

Avon is not alone in instituting rigorous structures at management levels to ensure there is a strong pipeline to draw upon that comprises the best talent of both genders. Kraft and PepsiCo both have similar systems, for example. In Australia, Anglo American, the mining group, has managed to transform an all-male mining force to one that now comprises 26 per cent female miners in just three years – and that’s in mining.

According to Julie Daum at Spencer Stuart, as at May 15 this year there were still 50 companies in the S&P 500 that retained all-male boards. Although, perhaps in a sign things are gradually improving, three have since appointed at least one woman.

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

For more Women at the Top news, video interviews and other features, visit www.ft.com/womenatthetop


About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.