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I love women. We all love women. Lord Davies wants us to make sure we have at least 25% of them at every party. Martha Lane Fox wants more than that. Viviane Reding wants even more still, and wants to enforce it with a 40% quota backed by European Law. I am of course talking about Women on Boards.

Viviane Reding

As discussed last month, Women on Boards are a vital part of developing business, the economy and arguably, the country. There is one overriding challenge which many still do not ‘get’ – Supply. There simply aren’t the women to go around, but if there is one thing that increased focus will bring, it is to assist that cause.

However, much as we are seeing more women enter the professional world, and more women progressing through the layers of management en route to the top, there is an issue. Once there, an increasing number are leaving. Are we seeking to fill the bath tub whilst leaving the plug out?

Last month we highlighted the staggering news that the number of Lord Davies’ large company female directors had not increased at all this year. That has since got worse, a lot worse….led from the very top.

The number of female CEOs has dramatically decreased. In the past month, the first ever female FTSE-100 CEO, Dame Marjorie Scardino has stepped down from Pearson PLC  after 15 years; Kate Swann has announced her departure from WHSmith after 9 years, and just today, Cynthia Carrollhas announced her departure from Anglo American after 6 years at the helm.

Cynthia Carroll

Additionally, one of the highest profile FTSE-100 CEOs in waiting, Liz Doherty from Reckitt Benckiser, has announced her departure. Even the fantastic Angela Arendts at Burberry has faced pressure following warnings of lower than expected profits after a 4 year-low performance. Only Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco seems to have had clear water.

So why have three very high-profile female CEOs announced their departures within a month? There is an unfair suggestion that following the huge media and political focus on Women on Boards, it is a strategic and political move to ‘leave on a high’ having turned their companies around, and expecting a return to more difficult corporate times ahead.

Such things are undoubtedly cyclical and after tenures of 15 and 9 years in such a high pressure environment, Dame Marjorie and Ms Swann have certainly done their bit. Cynthia Carroll’s 6 years at Anglo American comes after significant increased profitability, and successfully weathering the global financial crisis, but also comes after significant shareholder pressure for a change after a loss of faith in Ms Carroll’s strategy and leadership following a drop in current year performance.

And perhaps that is the crux of the problem? It isn’t a gender issue, it is back to the unrealistic expectations/misguided pressure of shareholders? A seasonal shift from Shareholder Spring? Shareholder Autumn, or ‘Fall’?

…..OR maybe these ladies (and Dames) just ran out of steam trying to push water up a male dominated hill?

Even since my blog of last month, I have met 6 or 7 highly impressive, senior female directors – the potential next generation of female FTSE-100 leaders (contact me for details….!). This next generation of leading ladies in business are seriously impressive, but still too few. So we should indeed see this crop of resignations as a blip rather than a slippery slope.

Yes, business needs to work harder to encourage more women to aim for the top, and clearly now help them to stay there. Yes, we need to address the female attitude surrounding the aspiration to climb to the very top……. and my god yes we need to address the male attitude towards female leaders, again, see more here.

Flexible hours, subsidised childcare and flexible parental leave are all, in reality, a misnomer and a tiny part of this problem. Ask any one of the ladies mentioned above and I guarantee none of them will have seen them as in any way a reason for their departures, or a significant factor on their routes to the top.

Those people at the top are typically wildly in love with their work, usually to the point of obsession. Family, love interest, everything plays second fiddle, and much as work/life blend is critical, flexibility simply isn’t a factor. Executives do what is needed – see Marissa Mayer.

Marissa Mayer

Where women do differ is attitude, but not necessarily adversely.

Earlier this year, the Telegraph conducted a survey amongst new graduates. Over 20% of male respondents aspired to take home more than £100,000 per year, only 16% of females did. At the opposite end of the scale, 16% of females would be happy earning £30,000 with no aspirations to earn more whereas only 10% of men would be. Other findings from the same survey? Running your own business: 22% Vs 16%. Becoming a CEO? 6% Vs 3%.

This difference in ambition sets the two genders of on different paths, but this ‘do what it takes’ attitude more prevalent in men has an impact higher up the corporate ladder…..and this leads on to what I suspect IS a major reason for the lack of female CEOs, and for their longevity.

As discussed in Pick on the Big Guys, the role of a large company CEO is a very high pressure one. It will typically take decades of 80-100 hour weeks, immense commitment and personal/life sacrifice. That is enough to dissuade many would be CEOs.

However, thanks to political and media interference, usually from an immense position of ignorance, the role of large company CEO has now become akin to that of a celebrity with every move analysed and criticised. Success is expected, failure punishable by (corporate) death. Witness the unmitigated shareholder revolt seen earlier this year, even leaders of hugely successful businesses, experiencing record performance, had their comparatively small earnings scrutinised by those who income was inflated due to such success – the so called Shareholder Spring.

It is no longer a pleasant place to be, several male leaders have bowed out, rather than continually facing such external pressure, several more have taken the choice not to seek the large company CEO role, preferring a smaller, more entrepreneurial, often Private Equity backed route in preference.

Particularly telling are the number of near C-Level female execs I have met that, having previously eyed the top job, have now ruled out such an ascension; the much reported Glass-Ceiling. Most realise that the sacrifice to their lives is simply not worth it.

Can we really see that as a weakness?

Martha Lane Fox

What ever the reason, the number of female FTSE-100 CEOs has halved in a month, and the number of large company female directors decreased at a time when everyone is championing movement in the opposite direction. Internal/business attitude and chauvinism doesn’t appear to be to blame either….. Cue Lord Davies, Ms Lane-Fox & Ms Reding.