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carl mortished

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The death of the modern world's greatest female political leader might seem an odd moment to agitate for more women in company boardrooms. However, Vince Cable, the British business secretary, is not shy of the cheap political gesture. Today he is threatening British-listed companies with mandatory quotas if they fail to meet the government's target of 25 per cent female directors by 2015. The objective of one-woman-in-four was set two years ago by the British government; a report from the Cranfield School of Management shows we have some way to go, and indicates that progress is slowing.

Women currently occupy 17 per cent of the seats in British boardrooms – about the same level as Canada – but most of these women are non-executives. Among the FTSE100 top British companies, only 18 executive directors are women, compared with almost 300 men. When Cynthia Carroll quits at Anglo American, there will be only three female chief executives. It seems too predictable that the most female-friendly FTSE company is Burberry, the fashion retailer, with three out of eight board seats occupied by women.

The British government is reluctant to follow the example of Norway, which has had legislation in place since 2003 requiring 40 per cent of board seats to be reserved for women. This has largely been achieved, and without much fuss. But there is the niggling problem that, while there are now lots of female voices at top table, the reality is the action is happening when the men leave the dinner table for the smoking room or its modern workday equivalent, the executive office suite. As in Britain and almost everywhere, in Norway there are still few female chief executives – only 15 per cent of executive management in Norway is female.

I wonder how realistic is the expectation that women will scramble to reach the heights of capitalism. Very few men want to be chief executives of global companies, perhaps a slightly greater number than want to be prime minister, an even more hideous job. Within all the hagiography of Margaret Thatcher, you can find only a few mentions of her private life. This is partly because in those days the press didn't pry in the way it does today, but it may also be because her private world was quite small, much smaller than her public world of work. By some accounts, Lady Thatcher spent less time with her children then than does today the current male British prime minister. Lady Thatcher had the advantage of being married to a wealthy, retired businessman who was happy to walk one step behind, providing unflinching emotional support. But there is absolutely no doubt that when faced with the choice – and the choice came every day – Lady Thatcher chose work over family, 100 per cent. When she retired, she was a lonely figure, bereft by loss of office. I doubt hers is a role-model that attracts many women – or men, for that matter.

But that is what is required of a political leader, and what is required of the successful CEO of a global company. Politicians and CEOs are odd people. It is not an attractive job and the current fashion for politicians to spend more time with their families may in part explain why so many are ineffectual and uninspiring. They are too normal. It also explains why there are so few really good CEOs, and why there may be relatively few female aspirants for the job.

Carl Mortished is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights.