Glencore’s chairman: in need of reconstruction

Simon Murray’s curriculum vitae – complete with a stint in the Foreign Legion, a love of helicopter flying and a penchant for endurance running – suggests he is an old-fashioned man’s man. But man’s men have learnt to keep to themselves any unreconstructed views on women in business. Instead, the newly appointed chairman of Glencore ran straight into a wall of criticism after telling the UK’s Sunday Telegraph that women are “not so ambitious in business as men because they’ve better things to do. Quite often they like bringing up their children…”

He went on:

All these things have unintended consequences. Pregnant ladies have nine months off. Do you think that means that when I rush out, what I’m absolutely desperate to have is young women who are about to get married in my company, and that I really need them on board because I know they’re going to get pregnant and they’re going to go off for nine months?

These views would be bad enough if expressed in the privacy of a (gentlemen’s) club, but Glencore is a giant mining company that is about to sell its shares in an initial public offering. It should be an automatic candidate to join the blue-chip FTSE 100 index and it should be setting an example. Chairmen of the largest UK-listed companies are (mostly) trying to improve the gender balance, either through voluntary initiatives such as the 30% Club or under pressure from Lord Davies, whose recent report to the government threatened quotas if larger UK companies did not make sufficient progress towards voluntary targets.

Simon Murray doesn’t like quotas – and he has plenty of support for that view, from women and men. But his additional comments – for which he belatedly apologised – are a stark reminder of just how hard any effort to rebalance boards will be.

If Murray wants some tips about how to comport himself, he need not look very far. Sir John Parker, chairman of Anglo American, is of a similar generation (he is 69; Murray is 71), yet the first thing he did on taking the chair at the UK-South African miner was not to disparage women in business but to leap to the defence of his chief executive, Cynthia Carroll, who was up against intense criticism, spiced with outright misogyny.

I interviewed Parker recently. He told me (between 16 and 17 minutes into this video) that if he’d believed the newspapers at the time, he would have assumed Carroll wasn’t the woman for the job. Instead, he decided she deserved his support, then acted:

Cynthia was receiving horrible comments from some of the male population in South Africa that should have known better. And frankly, that’s a situation I wouldn’t tolerate. And my first day, I went to South Africa and met the senior management and made it very clear that I was backing Cynthia Carroll as the chief executive… and I expected everybody else to do the same. There would be no change at the top unless there was failure to perform.

I happen to believe that Glencore’s chairman, by belittling women’s contribution to business, has put his company at a disadvantage in the global battle for talent and that Glencore itself, with no women on its board and few in senior positions, is sending a signal that it may be prone to damaging groupthink in future. As Sir John Parker’s comments illustrate, there need be no contradiction – even in the macho world of mining – between promoting balance and tolerance from the top down and encouraging a strong performance. On a level playing field,  all executives – women and men – would want to be judged on performance alone. That is a concept even Simon Murray should understand.

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