As any follower of this column will know, I’m not the greatest fan of the Equal Opportunities Commission. In fact, better than that, I am more a sworn enemy because of its trenchant (and outdated) feminist stance. So it saddens me greatly that for the first time in years I have to ring in this new year with a hearty ‘hear, hear’ in praise of the latest commission report Sex and Power: Who Runs Britain.
The commission found that the top echelons that run public life and business are still overwhelmingly male - and while they didn’t single out the grocery trade, they should have done. If you take just one look at this magazine’s Review of 2004, and who has been moving in and out of the top jobs (December 18, pp48-49), you’ll find that of the 20 departing top executives 19 were men and one (Sara Weller, ex-deputy MD at Sainsbury, now MD at Argos) was female. Worse still, of the 14 newly filled posts singled out for attention, each was filled by a man. While it might not be the most scientific survey of this industry’s top jobs, it shows 34 posts, 33 men, one woman, and only one of those men comes from an ethnic minority background (assuming Spanish and Belgian don’t count).
All this seems a little anachronistic for someone whose day job is split between the media and recruitment worlds. Let’s start with the media. Twenty years ago Fleet Street newspapers were one of the ultimate male bastions but today The Guardian, Observer, Mirror, Sun and News of the World are all presided over by women, each of whom worked their way up from the bottom, and the bottom they worked up from was the sales department. Similarly, if you look at the recruitment industry, you’ll find that 20 years ago head-hunting was a male preserve - conducted in private clubs by greying gentlemen with bulging pocket books. Yet today many of the most successful fee-earners are women - and again women who have worked their way up from the bottom.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Management Today publishes an annual survey of the 50 most powerful women in the UK. Twelve are women in the media and publishing. Next up, with 10, is the City and financial sector.
The grocery trade gets four mentions: Pat O’Driscoll, chief executive at Northern Foods, Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate affairs director at Tesco, Perween Warsi, founder of S& A Foods and Marie Melnyk, joint MD at Morrisons. However, it is difficult for the industry to claim three of them as their own: O’Driscoll began her career at Price Waterhouse, Neville-Rolfe was a civil servant and Warsi started in her kitchen in Derby. It is only Marie Melnyk who started in the industry - as a 17-year-old shop assistant. Next week this magazine will publish its own survey of the most influential women in this industry and I will study it with interest - not least to see if there is a burgeoning battalion of younger talent waiting to take over from the 50 and 60-year-olds who now dominate. It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of Management Today’s top 50 women are in their mid 30s to late 40s, starting work between 1977 and 1992.
Although the data is scant, we know the percentage of women graduates entering the workforce over those years and it’s a good yardstick of management entrants. In the late 1970s, 33% of the graduate workforce was female, a figure which rose to 45% by 1992.
In most industries that means that more women are steadily working their way through the layers of management and before too long the glass ceiling argument will be seen to be one which has been more based on the age group (or cohort) that top management is drawn from than on inherent prejudice.
However, in the grocery trade I’m not so sure the same is true and wonder why - especially when companies such as Masterfoods have long championed hiring women into high posts. Perhaps the Review of 2004 was unrepresentative, perhaps The Grocer’s survey will disprove me. But I think not.
However, there is one small irony: one of the few male Commissioners is David Smith, people director of Asda. So come on David, is anything wrong in the grocery trade?
n Simon Howard is a founder of Work Communications and writes the Jobfile column for the Sunday Times.