Casual sexism is alive and kicking in UK boardrooms

Only a day after International Women’s Day, at a Retail Week seminar entitled “How to become a non-exec director”, one was left wondering what role women had as non-executive directors. The session was provided by three male chairmen of boards, one male commercial director and one male chair of panel. Perhaps someone should have a word with the organiser about ensuring some diversity?

During the seminar John Allan, chair of the Tesco board, made remarks about white men becoming an endangered species. The full comment was “If you are female and from an ethnic minority background, preferably both you are in an extremely prepicious period so go for it frankly. For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs, the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future, I think, so you are at an advantage. If you are a white male, tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.” Harry Wallop, a journalist who chaired the panel, told him to look around the room to see that white men were not an endangered species. Allan later claimed the comments were meant to be humorous and that the audience had enjoyed his “colourful turn of speech” and that he intended to be “humorous, a bit hyperbolic”

I was at that seminar. I did not enjoy the speech, I cringed for him. It was the kind of painful out-of-touch comment only too commonly trotted out by men in the guise of “humour”, with no understanding of the issues or how their comments contribute to the problem of bias towards men in senior positions.

Tesco has 11 board members and 8 of them are men, meaning that at Tesco they’re hardly an endangered species. His comments made it sound like all women would be welcome, regardless of their skills. Why wasn’t he saying something along the lines of “Tesco would welcome applications from more women who are currently under-represented on the board?” We know that there are women out there who can equal or better the skillset of existing board members and Tesco, alongside the majority of other boards, should be saying the same. Allan’s full comments were not reported anywhere, shame really as I (and I’m sure many of us who believe in equality and know that we haven’t reached it) also took issue with the comment “..you are at an advantage.”

He wasn’t the only one casually giving out the sexism though. When asked for advice on taking the first steps into non-exec directorship Jim Pringle from Notum Associates said “…your chairman may be able to help you..”. When asked about how much he gets involved with the CEO, Peter Williams chairman of  Boohoo.com, Mister Spex and U and I Group said “…the CEO is employed to run the business and the executive is employed to support him run the business…”

Maybe they have a point, According to the subsequent Guardian article Call to boycott Tesco over ‘endangered’ white men claim “In the private sector, women accounted for just 29% of directors appointed in the UK last year, according to the recruitment firm Egon Zehnder, the lowest proportion since 2012.”

There are only 6 women CEOs in the FTSE 100. SIX! And the proportion of female directors among FTSE 100 companies is just 26%. The lack of ethnic diversity is a further serious issue on UK boards. According to reports last year, only 8% of those directors were not white, whereas people from minority ethnic backgrounds made up 14% of the UK’s overall workforce.

“Every little helps” is a slogan inextricably linked to Tesco. It’s about time Tesco helped itself to some female talent and helped women by taking their contribution to the workplace seriously, stopped paying lip service to equality and undertook some good diversity training to boot. I may have to put my foot in that boot…

For various stories relating to Tesco and me see History with Tesco which covers taking them to court and winning, various complaints, meetings and interviewing Dave Lewis and Matt Davies.

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