Recruitment Grid Girls?

Last week signalled the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK, thanks to Manchester’s Emmeline Pankhurst. A landmark moment in sexual equality, arguably THE greatest landmark in UK history. It paved the way for the first sitting female MP in 1919, and the first female Prime Minister in 1979, all of which stand as watershed moments in female equality and empowerment.

The week before, under the same equality banner, Formula One announced it was banning ‘Grid Girls’ (cocktail-dress adorned models, employed to promote F1 sponsors before/after each high-profile race). Formula One and other supporters of the move defended this action by saying it was ‘not appropriate in an equal society’ as it objectified women.

Are these two bookend actions the same….or diametrically opposed? Certainly those who have criticised the Grid Girls, typically from outside the sport would say they are the same, however, the Grid Girls themselves, now vocally highlighting their new unemployed status, would vehemently disagree saying the move is ‘do-good actions of the ignorant, and the opposite of equality’.

Back in 2009, there was a cry for more ‘Women on Boards’. Partly from those aspiring ‘women in business’, but mostly from outside. The parallels are not wholly dissimilar to the Grid Girls story. The intentions were correct, but the understanding of the real issues were largely missed. And missed comprehensively. We had demands for quotas, penalties and legislation to forbid all-male boards.

The bandwagon was jumped upon, and an entire industry was born out of the move, Lord Davies was commissioned and decided on an arbitrary figure of 25% female representation on boards, initially for ‘top-150’ businesses, then quickly realigned to the FTSE-100.

Many within the executive search sector were critical of the faux focus (me included – see here: ), saying it would be smoke and mirrors, especially those of us who already had well over 25% of our placements going to female candidates.

8 years later, 3 years past Lord Davies’ magical target date of 25% female representation on FTSE-100 and we’ve hit 27%, and now moving the focus to 30% or 33%.

Positively, there are now NO all male boards in the FTSE-100, and just 19 in the FTSE-250. This compares to 21 all male boards across the FTSE-100
at the time of the initial Davies report (131 in the FTSE-250).

Great news. Well done Lord Davies.

Women now sit in 294 of the 1,062 FTSE-100 board positions, and a pleasing 26% of all board appointments in those firms from the last year have been female.

(There is a ‘but’ coming here….)

This success is not the success that Lord Davies is claiming. Aside from the volatility in percentage female appointments (the number of female appointments fell every year bar one since 2013), there is a huge elephant in the room…. The figures are being fudged, in the same way as in every quota-led country.

In 2009, 18.1% of FTSE-100 executive committee members were female. In April 2013 that was 15%. Today, only 9% of executive committee members are female half of the 2009 level.

How is that possible when total numbers have more than doubled from 12% to 27%? Easy…..businesses have done exactly what I predicted they would do six years ago….. fudge the figures as if it was a statutory quota – they have merely employed females into Non-Exec Roles, employed Golden-Skirts’….or worse still, ‘created’ NED roles merely to tick a box.

Even Lord Davies threw the towel in, admitting in January 2014 that the only way to get to his magic, arbitrary set 25% was through non-execs. Classic politico objective of ‘hit the target regardless of the real impact’?

Last year, 46% of the people I put into new roles were female. Not a single role was ‘created’ for a women. Not a single role was adapted for a woman. Only one was a Non-Exec (and it was a Non-Exec Chairman role). Not a single one of those women had specifically been coached to get a role, nor were they the ‘token inclusions’ on a forced shortlist. The women that got those roles for one simple reason. They were the best Man for the job.

I said six years ago….. that by far the biggest issue in getting increased female representation was supply, not demand… I still maintain that, except it has now arguably got worse, not better. It’s not got worse because women are less suitable, no, it has got worse because less women want the role – but more males and women not-in-business are telling them that they should do (See unemployed Grid-Girls for paradoxical similarities).

Even the feeding ground of the FTSE-250 has seen a similar shift in great headlines but shocking statistics. The number of female executive directors is down to a staggering 7% (with total female Directors numbering just over 20%). All this despite immense political posturing, media attention and point scoring highlighting the ratio of women in everything from the competing sides of the House of Commons to front line armed forces rather than focusing on, or even discovering the real reasons for the disparity.

Female Exposure. Not what you think.

I have exposure to more senior executives, and more female senior executives than most people. No female has ever complained about un-modernised workplaces or un-level playing fields being a hindrance to female career progression and ascension to the board. Only one female has ever commented on even a remotely anti-female attitude to board recruitment – and that was solely the personal attitude of a Manchester PLC’s CEO, and thus she didn’t spit her dummy out, she just left and joined a different business.

Think of the Children

It is at this point that unimaginative Women on Boards campaigners throw the ‘Child-Care’ grenade in. Cost of childcare is a prohibiter to a lot of things. Certainly to the lone or second parent going to work it is expensive, but at c£50 for a 10 hour day, subsidized with 30 hours per week free PLUS childcare vouchers (allowing the employed couple to cover £500 per month of the remaining costs from Gross salaries), the cost of childcare isn’t really that great for a high-earning professional couple with a dual career path to a main board.

Furthermore, the average age a female graduate has her first child is 35yrs old. For qualified female professionals that becomes 37. A future FTSE-100 main board-director will be very close to at least operational board level, or FTSE-250 board level by the time they are 37. They will certainly be earning well into £6-figures. The cost of even full-time childcare is a minimal financial consideration for such a demograph.

The argument then develops into the ‘Biological Grenade’ – the prejudice against women that take their 6/9 month maternity leave out of the work place. This is an issue, especially within certain environments – however, again using the reasons in the above paragraph, a fully-career-focused female, by the time she gets to 37, will [from my direct and personal experience] be suitably valued and have such career momentum that [they will ensure] such a break will have minimal impact on a genuine, future FTSE-100 Board Director’s ascension.

Such research is backed up by Sylvia Ann Hewlett (Leading economist and expert on gender and workplace issues). Her research primarily states that a woman who took more than 2 years off lost 18% of her earning power and lost momentum with her career…however up to 12 months away had no effect on earnings, or career prospects whatsoever.

So….If childcare and childbirth are of minimal impact to the top-flight execs that Lord Davies is targeting. What is the issue??

The primary part of the issue, again from my direct experience, is attitude. Throughout scholastic environments, females outperform males. Ditto in Further and Higher Education. Even in professional qualifications, pass-rates are typically higher for females than for males…..however the numbers entering professional qualifications starts biasing towards males.

Even at this stage, aspirations begin to take effect. Everyone differs, but the differences between genders becomes very noticeable.

Last year, the Telegraph conducted a survey amongst new graduates. Over 40% 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, 19% 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? M Vs F?
Running your own business: 22% Vs 16%.
Becoming a CEO? 26% Vs 3%.
Swapping a 4-day week for a C-Level career? 16% Vs 38%.

This difference in ambition sets the two genders off on different paths at the age of 21. An overly bullish ‘do what it takes’ attitude is far more prevalent in men, the more humanistic balance between life and work being more prevalent within women… both having an impact higher up the corporate ladder – but which demeanour is correct?

There are a huge variety of reasons why females are less likely to aspire to climb to the highest ranks. Motherhood is unquestionably one of them. I have seen even the most career-focused professionals (male & female) suddenly have their priorities dramatically shift once a baby arrives – and quite rightly/understandably so. Every person is different….not everyone can be a Marissa Mayer, appointed CEO of Yahoo! at 6 months pregnant, took 45 minutes maternity leave, set to take home over $100m over her first five years employment.


Attitude and desire still fits in hugely. Three years ago I interviewed a female FTSE-100 CXO with a view to considering her for a FTSE-100 CEO position. She was perfect for the job. Natural-risk-aversion, complementary sector, perfect skills-match and great chemistry fit with the rest of the board. However she immediately ruled herself out. Why? She just didn’t need the hassle. She had no need to turn her £7-figure annual remuneration into a larger £7-figure remuneration and certainly didn’t need the increased stress, hassle and intrusion into her life. Her quote? “I don’t need the Ego-trip of becoming a CEO”

And therein lies one of the current biggest issues behind what I believe is the lack of supply to get women to C-Level. Women (typically) don’t need the Ego-Trip, at least as much as men. Career focus, professional capability and ability to perform are right up there…..but the need to balance life is just that little bit greater. As the lady mentioned above stated – her then current CEO had media camped outside the gates of his house for more than a month, she didn’t need the ego-trip or increased remuneration as much as she needed the relative anonymity for her, and her family.

Is that their weakness though? Or their strength?

As the role of a C-Level exec becomes more stressful and far more public (open the business pages of any broadsheet and there will be some story about some exec pay/exec performance/shareholder revolt argument…), so people of both genders are turning their back on large Corporates, especially those who crave a ‘life’ and take responsibilities as a parent to heart.

This move explains the increased prevalence of former corporate (future) execs becoming entrepreneurs, never more so than with females.  The number of female entrepreneurs, setting up businesses has rocketed in the last 8 years to well over 50%.

The Babson report highlighted that, in 1999, 13% of Start-Ups were started by females. In 2012 that was 45%…and is now over 50%. The average age of the female entrepreneur?  38 yrs old….. just one year older than the professional females average age of new motherhood. Coincidence?

So perhaps motherhood does have an impact on some women’s corporate career prospects, however much of a fully personal choice it is…..but don’t assume the output is all floral dresses and home-bake parties.

…..and what is more valuable to society? Female’s making up 25% of running large businesses? Or females setting up their own business and really adding to society. Or is the mix of the two really quite equitable and beneficial?

Grid Girls

The criticism and crux of the issue over the Grid Girls was the (perceived) objectifying of women, even if the women in question did not consider themselves to be objectified). This was on the heels of the removal of Darts ‘walk-on-girls’, the Presidents Club debacle and more locally, a Digital Award ceremony which received national condemnation for having professional Burlesque dancers as entertainment.

It becomes a dangerous message to send though, and one that risks undoing the positive work the Women on Boards has done. Last month, we were handling a Sales Director role for a Digital business. 4 out of 5 interviewees were female, all performed well at interview, but the desire was to trim the selection down to 3 for second interview. The male had underperformed, but when reviewing the feedback for the 4 females, one was comparatively weaker in a couple of areas but was also a very attractive and younger lady.

The (female) CEO of the business expressed her concern over the message that would be sent out to their client base of sending a young, attractive women out to sell, especially in light of the current objectifying claims (and even more so as many of their target clients had been attendees and vocal opponents of the Burlesque entertainment mentioned above).

In this case, her looks were not the reason for her rejection, but if such a move continues, how long will it be before women’s rights campaigning actually cost a women her job?

The corporate landscape needed to evolve, but like it or not, running a £bn+ business is never going to be conducive to optimising family life, that is one of the reasons why the average FTSE-100 Executive Director earned £1,121,700 last year, and the same again in vested LTIPs. It is also why divorce rates are almost double the national average for FTSE-100 exec directors. If it was easy, everyone would be there.

It needs to be understood why we want Women on Boards, and in business. The impact females have on business is well documented, and so compelling that few businesses wilfully ignore the issue.

Propagating large business with female non-execs serves no-one, and this is where all the cited successful women-in-business supporting nations find themselves. (unless we want to see Norwegian style ‘Golden Skirts’ like Mimi Berdal who was Non-Exec for 90 different businesses – all of which got to tick a box, but only realistically have a ‘women on their board’ two days per year.)

What the answer is not to force anyone to deviate from their chosen path whether they wish or do not wish to be a FTSE-100 exec, or a Grid Girl.

The answer is to improve the supply, ask women in business what is important to them, what would attract them into business.…and improve who ‘corporates’ choose to locate that supply. If I can fill over 50% of executive roles with women, why do others struggle to forcibly place 1 in 10?

….and by propping up numbers by creating token female NEDs, are women on boards any different to motorsport’s Grid Girls?

8 Comments on “Recruitment Grid Girls?”

  1. Superbly written blog as always Gary and a very topical point. My wife and I have had many discussions on this same thing. She has had many opportunities to progress, and has done so, but she doesn’t have the kill or be killed attitude to ascend to the top table and wouldn’t want it. She is happy with the work she does and the remuneration she gets, we both agree, balance is always the most important element in career aspirations and everyones balance and trade is unique to them. To force anyone of any gender or colour or sexual orientation is ignorant. Well done again.

  2. Via Facebook

    I’m in the middle of doing a PhD in female entrepreneurship and agree with SO many of your points.

    However, we still need to ask WHY women don’t have the same attitude or aspiration as men when it comes to pursuing CEO positions (or entrepreneurship which I am studying. Women set up in business at half the rate of men and are more likely to set up for reasons of time flexibility than men are).

    One of the reasons for this is societal. Women who have children often experience a significant ‘domestic gap’ in terms of society’s expectation of what is required of them to be a good parent. Women’s self-identity is still predominantly wrapped up in motherhood and men’s self-identity is still wrapped up in the role of provider. We are social creatures and society’s judgement on how well we perform these roles weighs heavily on us and greatly influences the choices we make.

    A really great book you may like by Tom Schuller called ‘The Paula Principle’ (published 2017 and brilliantly referenced) explains the 5 reasons why women work below their level of competence. He lists them as:
    1) discrimination
    2) caring responsibilities
    3) self-confidence and identity
    4) social capital (e.g. networking opportunities at the golf club/ down the pub. Women don’t talk business socially as much.)
    5) choice

    So some of it IS choice. But,(as is often the way) the picture is far more complicated than that. We need to be asking ourselves WHY women make these choices… And, does it matter??

    Thanks so much for sharing your article.

  3. Great blog Gary and raising some interesting points. This world has gone mad and going madder by the minute with an obsession with false equality when those being helped often don’t want it. Such faux attempts are masking and hindering real progress. Well done for calling it out.

  4. Great blog and so very right. Women’s rights has become a political statement and discussed without the inclusion of normal women. We don’t need help to fight our corner it is akin to helping the elderly man across the street when he doesn’t want to cross the road.

  5. Interesting read Gary. Always thought the obsession was flawed. What needs to be changed? Or does anything? Are we better encouraging women into entrepreneurship if that is a more natural outlet?

  6. Pingback: State of the Market – 2017 stats | Gary Chaplin

  7. Good parallels Gary but ultimately, what gets measured gets achieved. We should applaud the 27%, push for 30% and not rest until we have 50%. Exec or Non Exec, female representation is vital. For interest, I’m not a bleeding hart feminist, but did disagree with the Grid Girls notion. Outdated and exploited these women.

  8. Good blog Gary, it’s interesting, topical and thought provoking and I think that many of these same arguments apply to other equality issues. I work with institutions on achieving equality targets much early in the lives of woman and of underrepresented minorities. That battle has largely been won around gender equality, but where it hasn’t such as in studying science and technology, the damage has been long done by society and the school system before they apply to university.

    To have more female C suite directors, the seeds of ambition and the correct studying and career trajectories need to be developing for the most able in their mid-teens. Even if we were embedding these attitudes in today’s 15 year old girls, a generation will pass before it is reflected in boardroom composition.


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