February 21, 2021

‘No time to slow down’, Kate Grussing quoted in Sunday Times

The Sunday Times featured an article by our managing director, Kate Grussing, and header of the piece says it all: 'This is no time to slow on women's progress.'

In the article, Kate highlights the need for more action when it comes to women in executive roles and advocates that we can't yet relax our focus yet with so little diversity of any kind in top jobs.

Read the full article below, or if you're a Times subscriber you can read it here.

The Times, This is no time to slow on women’s progress, 21 Feb 2021

Groundhog Day is a quaint American custom celebrated each February that predicts whether winter will persist or there will be an early spring, depending on whether the groundhog sees his shadow. Many of us associate it with being stuck in a time loop — which is exactly what seems to be happening in Britain’s boardrooms.

Despite enormous evidence that strong representation of women helps businesses to generate better returns, the same people — often white, public-school-educated men — still seem to get the nod for key roles. The consequences can be dire, as illustrated by the exit of KPMG’s UK chairman, Bill Michael — who, despite being a working-class Australian, displayed little enlightenment on diversity when he described unconscious bias as “complete crap”.
Research by my executive search firm, Sapphire Partners, shows that there has been glacial progress in increasing the proportion of executive appointments for women, despite the long campaign for more representation and a pipeline of talent that is stronger than ever. Still just 13 per cent of FTSE 100 executives are women (11 per cent in the FTSE 250).

On Wednesday, the final report of the Hampton-Alexander Review into female representation on boards will be published. There are high expectations of Kwasi Kwarteng, the new business secretary, who will be the latest in a long string of ministers to extol the virtues of diversity on boards. Hopefully he and this government will recognise there is a long way to go, and raise ambition levels.

The headlines will probably focus on how many companies have surpassed the review’s 33 per cent target for women on FTSE 100 boards — last week the 30 Per Cent Club said there were no all-male boards left in the FTSE 350. It will praise how far we have come since the first benchmarking report on representation was published in 1999. Yet with only eight women bosses in the FTSE 100 (nine in the FTSE 250), there are still too few women at the top. There are more chief executives called Andrew than there are women chief executives. Also, achieving 33 per cent on boards is not something to cheer if that is not mirrored in the management ranks.

I declare an interest: I started my career in the male-dominated City of the late 1980s and set up a search firm with diversity at its core 16 years ago. However, equally motivating are my three daughters. I am disappointed that so many women, including Denise Wilson, head of the Hampton-Alexander Review, have told me that many men think it is time to move on to new issues in our pandemic-ravaged economy.
Countless men have said to me, “When will you women be satisfied?” or “All the roles are going to women”. I still hear people justifying all-male shortlists and claiming that there just aren’t the women candidates, or women are not ambitious enough.

My greatest concern is that the latest generation of chairmen and chief executives has not stepped up in the way their predecessors did. Enlightened businessmen have been vital to the progress that has been made. Sir Philip Hampton, Lord (Mervyn) Davies, Sir John Parker and Sir Win Bischoff deserve medals for their efforts to promote diversity. Robert Swannell, former Marks & Spencer chairman, challenged campaigners to be more ambitious.

While I can think of many women who are pushing for change, including Brenda Trenowden, Ann Cairns and Dame Helena Morrissey, relatively few men are actively supporting the campaign. The chairmen who have led the charge are mostly in or approaching retirement and are winding down their corporate commitments.

Too many boards feel that, having got their three women non-executives, they can tick the diversity box and move on. Not enough chief executives worry that there are no women on their executive committees, the vital C-suite pipeline. Many chairmen are now prioritising the appointment of ethnic minority non-executives. The growing focus on ethnic diversity is laudable, but should not be at the expense of gender diversity.

Board and search consultants need to work harder when it comes to female talent development. Too many talented women fall off the career ladder due to a dearth of opportunities, lack of sponsors and mentors or unconscious bias.

I understand why fatigue has set in, and why issues such as Black Lives Matter, the Covid-19 recovery, climate change and sustainability are top of board agendas. Yet we need to be braver and more impatient — or we run the risk of another generation of underutilised female talent. While this year’s Groundhog Day indicated that winter was far from over, I want to see a better climate for female talent, with a new generation of chairmen and chief executives taking up the challenge.

Kate Grussing is the founder of Sapphire Partners, one of the first search firms to promote diversity in UK plcs. She is an ambassador for the 30 Per Cent Club and Women on Boards