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The corridors of power...

One of the questions asked most frequently at agms has to do with the dearth of women in UK boardrooms. Some old duffer stands up and bemoans the absence of the fairer sex, to which another old duffer - the chairman - delivers a suitably vague response.

Those off-the-cuff remarks are often carefully scripted. Many companies (British Airways is one) have a technician at the back of the room with a list of hundreds of potential questions. The appropriate answer flashes up on a screen under the chairman’s nose.

Nearly every day brings a story featuring a female high-flier, whether Sly Bailey at Trinity Mirror or Robin Saunders at WestLB. Even Nicola Horlick is back in the headlines.

But how often do you read about women directors? Hardly ever. Women have a high profile in the City, politics, accountancy, the law and the media, but have yet to match this success in the world of business. Two out of six executives at Marks & Spencer are women, including Alison Reed, chief financial officer, formerly with Deloitte & Touche.

But I suspect M&S will remain the exception. Women seem to get ahead more in a services culture, leaving the clubbish world of the boardroom to the men. Why spend 20 years bashing against the glass ceiling when you can make a lot of money quickly elsewhere?

Witness the case of Louise Barton, the former media analyst. Barton recently settled an unfair pay dispute with her old employer, Investec. Although unhappy that male colleagues were earning considerably more, Barton was still collecting around £300,000 a year in bonuses, which is enough to satisfy most of us. With that sort of money up for grabs, why bother with the boardroom?

  • Jon Ashworth is business features editor of The Times

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