CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn says UK businesses is still too geared to men, wants one in four senior executives to be women

Lauren Fedor
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CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn will say businesses are still too "geared up" for men (Source: Getty)

British businesses are still too "geared up" for men, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director-general Carolyn Fairbairn will say this week, as she calls on firms to do more to promote women to senior leadership roles.

In a speech tomorrow at City law firm Latham & Watkins, Fairbairn will say that companies need to look "beyond boards" and focus on recruiting and training women for executive roles and other senior management positions.

The CBI boss – who took the reins of the industry organisation late last year – will also call for a new 25 per cent voluntary target for female senior executives in major UK companies, saying that despite significant progress made by firms in light of the Davies review, fewer than one in 10 executive directors at Britain's blue-chips are women.

"It’s important that we broaden the exam question and talk more widely about women as leaders," Fairbairn will say. "I believe that this, not women on boards per se, is the real issue.

"It’s fantastic that women are present in boardrooms in greater numbers. But let’s be clear. Non-executive directors and even chairmen attend between 4 and 10 board meetings a year. They approve strategy, are guardians of values, challenge decisions and help manage risk.

"These are important roles, but it is the job of executives to take daily decisions, shape and define strategy, and influence culture through the everyday examples that they set. They are the sleeves-rolled-up leaders in our society.

"We don’t have enough women running things and it is not getting better anything like fast enough."

READ MORE: Davies review sets one-third women on boards target

In his final Women on Boards report in October, Lord Mervyn Davies, a former chairman and chief executive of Standard Chartered, said that 33 per cent of all board seats at FTSE 350 companies should be held by women by the end of the decade.

The new recommendations marked a significant step up from Davies’s first report on gender diversity in the boardroom in 2011, which urged FTSE 100 boards to target for a minimum of 25 per cent female representation by 2015.

Annual reviews have since recorded an upward trend in the number of female directors at Britain’s blue-chip firms, with Davies’s initial target met for the first time earlier last year.

Nicky Morgan, the women and equalities minister, said last year that she would set up a new review to follow-up on Davies's work and focus on the executive pipeline.

READ MORE: New CBI boss disagrees with government on gender pay gap

Fairbairn will also use tomorrow's speech to push for culture change at Britain's biggest businesses, saying more needs to be done to prevent women from stepping down or refusing to take top jobs.

"Too many of our firms are seeing an exodus of senior women," Fairbairn will say. "We have talked a lot about glass ceilings over the years, but in my view we now need to talk more about sticky floors. Why are women choosing to leave?"

"Taking leadership roles in our society is risky, exposed, hard work. The personal toll can be high. You need friends, support systems, connections and a sense of belonging.

"And this is where I think the UK business world is not changing fast enough. Too much of UK business is still geared up for men, in terms of its social habits, its small talk, its clubbiness."

Fairbairn will say that increasing the availability of childcare, flexible working arrangements and care for the elderly would help firms attract and retain more female executives.

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