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Linda Cook, Shell’s director of gas and power… tipped as future chief executive

Times Online
The Times
October 8, 2008

Reform at a snail’s pace

Gloom over the glass ceiling is countered by reasons to be optimistic, says Daniel Allen

Illustration of businesspeople riding on snails.

Picture a snail, a Cornish snail. Bitten by wander-lust, it leaves Land’s End for John o’Groats. There, it turns round and heads straight back again. But halfway home, somewhere in Cumbria perhaps, it has had enough and retires to a field off the M6.

It has taken the snail 73 years to travel the length of Britain and halfway home again. And that, says the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), in a report heavy with snail metaphor, is the time it will take women to reach equal representation in the upper echelons of FTSE 100 companies. The glass ceiling, it seems, remains firmly in place.

The ceiling is less glass, more reinforced concrete, says Nicola Brewer, the commisssion chief executive. Young women’s career aspirations are turning to frustration, resulting in “an avoidable loss of talent at the top”.

Alison Duncan, an audit partner with Ernst & Young, who last year launched its women’s network, says that many women face a choice of career or family. “We do have to become more innovative at finding flexible work solutions for roles that have significant levels of responsibility.”

Some of those able to offer opportunities and reward also need enlightening. Duncan says: “If the majority of people in a position of authority have a certain style, then the chances are that those with a similar sort of style are more likely to succeed.”

Royal Dutch Shell is also making headway on this issue, according to Ruth Bourne, a senior diversity and inclusion adviser at the company. “We have to acknowledge some sort of glass ceiling in place. When you look at the number of women at entry level, the same numbers are not reflected at the top but we are seeing good progress.” She cites Linda Cook, Shell’s director of gas and power, who is tipped as a future chief executive.

Bourne, who joined Shell seven years ago, says she has had good support at the company. She is working four days a week following maternity leave but has been promoted and given development opportunities.

Once a male industry, energy is becoming more diverse: a fifth of Shell’s recruits to technical roles are female and senior leadership positions filled by women reached 13 per cent last year. The target is 20 per cent. “These women are in charge of multimillion or even multibillion dollar divisions, overseeing thousands of people,” says Josefine van Zanten, Shell’s global head of diversity and inclusion.

Olivia Gillan’s advice to women who feel their career development is blocked is not to change. A partner, at 31, with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Gillan says: “The worst thing you can do is feel you have to be more manly than a man.

“The whole point is that you are different and that you see that as a strength rather than a weakness.”

The hours are long and stress levels sometimes high in her field of mergers and acquisitions, but Gillan says that great efforts are made to encourage women to stay with PwC. She highlights a mentoring scheme, a women’s network and the rising number of female partners.

Mentoring and support has also benefited Silvina Aldeco-Martinez, a managing director of Standard & Poor’s, a division of McGraw-Hill, the information services provider.

Aldeco-Martinez is one of 22 women selected from McGraw-Hill’s 280 offices worldwide for the corporation’s women’s leadership initiative, which coaches potential senior executives. Her advice: do your homework; be proactive; build networks.

For Stephen Overell, associate director of the Work Foundation, a consultancy that advises organisations on the changing world of work, the gloomy view of the equality commission is not totally misplaced. However, he says, its report is based only on recent data whereas figures stretching back over 25 or 30 years are more encouraging.

Things are definitely moving in the right direction,” Overell says, “and it’s easy to see a very clear pattern of progress.”

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