My favourite image of the last few weeks? As Theresa May gave an impromptu acceptance speech in front of the House of Commons after it was confirmed that she would be PM, she was flanked by female MPs, including ministers Justine Greening and Amber Rudd. This felt very different to the rather tokenistic ‘Blair Babes’ photo shoot from 20 years ago or, going back even further, the solitary figure of Margaret Thatcher amongst all the suits.
After weeks of the unedifying spectacle of male politicians running around backstabbing, resigning and briefing against each other in the wake of the referendum result, it was refreshing to witness the women getting down to the business of running the country. This is a powerful image to send out to UK boardrooms.
Including May herself, we now have eight women in the UK cabinet and we also have women running the three major political parties in Scotland, a female first minister of Northern Ireland and Plaid Cymru leader. It all adds up to the largest-ever number of women holding the reins of UK power.
Of course I’m pleased that so many female politicians have now been elevated to the ultimate UK board of directors. I’ve long argued that we need to see more women in positions of authority to encourage other women to aim for the top, as well as normalise the idea of female leadership for the more reluctant guys.
But I’m particularly glad that we now have such a significantly female line-up without the need for any kind of positive discrimination. Although May has historically championed the issue of better female representation in politics, I have no doubt that she has made her current choices based on their suitability for office.
It was also good to hear many male Conservative politicians acknowledging that May’s low-key pragmatism is exactly what we need right now to negotiate with the fairly similar Angela Merkel. Fast forward a few months and it is entirely possible that UK, German and US politics will be led by women, bringing us into a whole new era of female-led business as usual.
This new set of senior role models has never been more needed. Although we all cheered last year when Lord Davies reported that 26.1% of FTSE 100 directors were female, progress has now slipped. Last year there were 22 FTSE 100 companies with female executive directors – those that hold the responsibility for day-to-day operations. This has now dropped back to 20. Davies’ replacement as the head of the women on boards group, Sir Philip Hampton, admitted that there is “a risk of inertia setting in”.
It’s worth reminding ourselves why we need more women in positions of power. This isn’t just about gender-based notions of fairness. Groups comprising members with diverse experiences have been proven to make better decisions.
As Davies observed in 2011: “women ask the awkward questions more often, decisions are less likely to be nodded through and so are likely to be better”. Which helps explain why Ken Clarke’s jibe that Theresa May is a “bloody difficult woman” actually proved to be a huge boost to her campaign for the top job. As someone who has also been called a difficult woman – and a few other things besides – I have always found it a compliment. I hope May will keep being “difficult” on our behalf as she negotiates our complex departure from the European Union.
I’m also hopeful that her resolve to add employees to UK boards of directors will add more impetus to the path to greater diversity. Apart from the fact it should improve staff engagement, it could act as a catalyst for the less progressive companies.
Clearly, UK plc has a pressing agenda in negotiating the details of its exit from the EU. But I don’t believe this has to push the cause of greater boardroom diversity to the back burner. Quite the opposite actually – this country’s business community is going to have to embrace significant amounts of change over the next few years. It may turn out that, not unlike the way the Second World War ultimately accelerated women’s rights, a more inclusive corporate attitude to board appointments could both result from and assist this period of adjustment. Bring on the difficult women.