Only one in seven board members at region's biggest companies is a woman

PUBLISHED: 06:00 28 November 2017 | UPDATED: 15:10 28 November 2017

Women's edition. Picture: Ian Burt

Women's edition. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2017

A glance around the business landscape in Norfolk and Suffolk will tell you that the scene - regardless of sector - is still male-dominated.

Government legislation against gender discrimination – including the gender pay gap reporting requirements introduced this year – is helping to push the conversation in the right direction, but attitudes must be changed before actions will follow.

The battle to win hearts and minds is still raging in East Anglia: while the wider workforce now shows a more even gender balance than in previous decades, that trend has yet to filter up fully to senior roles.

And new research has revealed the disproportionately small role women play in the day-to-day running of the region’s biggest companies.

A review of the boards of the EDP/EADT Top100 companies – representing Norfolk and Suffolk’s biggest businesses – reveals fewer than one in seven (13.7%) boardroom seats are taken by a woman.

This is a slight drop from the proportion (14%) found in similar research by this paper 18 months ago and a far cry from the FTSE 100 average of more than 25%.

Food, drink and agriculture, a sector in which a quarter of the Top100 companies operate, was the least gender balanced – of 140 boardroom seats only 12 were occupied by women.

There were positive examples, however, including the East of England Co-op, which has an even split among its 16 board members, and Suffolk brewer Adnams, where three of eight board members are female.

Financial services, which includes two Top100 firms, was the most gender balanced industry, with five women among 20 board members.

Only eight companies had a board that was more than 40% female – and a staggering 61 firms had no female board members at all.

Rachel Higgs is a partner at law firm Mills and Reeve – which itself has three female members on its seven-strong board – and said the firm has been conducting research into barriers to female career progression.

While the tradition of family businesses being handed down from father to son – particularly in sectors such as agriculture – could be partly to blame, Ms Higgs believes many women still do not aspire as high as men.

“From an early age women weigh up their work-life balance. They tend to be more mature and balanced in terms of their career,” she said.

“Around 60% of those entering the legal profession are now female, but when you look at partner level it is much less than that.

“There are a lot of things employers can do to level that playing field, like flexible and part time working. You have to think: this is not fair and we have to do something about it.

“If you are going to attract women into higher management you have to make it easier and acceptable to do so.”

The image of Norfolk and Suffolk as slower and less advanced could also play against them in attracting ambitious women, Ms Higgs said.

“If you were a bright woman in senior management in a big city, would you be tempted to move to Norfolk or Suffolk? If you do some research you can see the chances of getting to the top of a company here are quite small and that could put you off.

“It’s a catch-22 – the counties have a reputation for being slightly old-fashioned and that deters people from moving in, so it never shifts. You need to have employers who are actively engaged with that conundrum.”

Emma Bishop, a director at Hemsby-based Optem and consultant for clients in the largely male-dominated oil and gas industry, helped to set up the Women’s Energy Network in 2014 and is its current chairman.

She said accepting women into boardrooms made sense “socially, legally and economically” – with industry research showing a direct correlation between female board members and company profitability.

“What is holding women back in Norfolk is people’s perceptions and attitudes and the way to deal with that is to get men to encourage gender diversity,” she said.

“It is about making sure people have the right frameworks in their organisation to ensure gender is not an issue. Decisions should be based on a person’s competence and ability.”

One campaign to redress boardroom balance in the UK has already had a global impact.

The 30% Club was launched in the UK to achieve 30% women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies and now has factions worldwide.

Its founder Dame Helena Morrissey was recently named in business advisory firm Grant Thornton’s Faces of a Vibrant Economy list.

Brenda Trenowden, 30% Club global chairman, said the gender balance of the Top100 boards was “disappointing”.

“It will be interesting to note progress from here, as what gets measured gets managed,” she said.

Sector ‘failing to retain talent’

Carla Riddell, who manages energy giant Centrica’s Southern North Sea assets, has watched the energy industry evolve over her 20 years within it, including stints as “the only woman” on offshore rigs.

She believes the sector is “failing to retain talent”.

“The industry is a classic leaky pipeline where there are men and women who join from university or as apprentices, but as you go through the career we lose some of the women and that is not good for our industry because we pay money to train them and bring them on the journey,” she said.

“For me a big thing is that you cannot be what you cannot see, and unless we have strong, visible female role models we are not giving an aspirational goal for people to work towards.

“Things are getting better – it now feels less unusual to be female and I think with time the leaky pipeline will push upwards, but my biggest fear is that we are not changing quickly enough.”

Positive changes under way

Industry figures believe positive changes are under way in the region’s male dominated industries.

Richard Self, agriculture manager at Cooperatives UK, said changes such as a fall in manual labour requirements were encouraging more women into agriculture, but it would take time for this to “feed up to board level”.

“Mainstream businesses want to get more females into boardrooms as having a diverse mix of directors helps with decision making.

“There is also a question of whether women aspire to get to board level which needs to be addressed,” he said.

Ian Twinley, chairman of John Grose Group – whose six board members are all male – said a low staff turnover was slowing the movement of women to board level, but that the group has a healthy (and growing) number of female managers. “The sector is getting better at identifying opportunities for job shares and part-time working, which historically have been less common,” he said.

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