The lack of women on the board of the local enterprise partnership has caused controversy, writes Anna Blackaby.
It is “extremely regrettable” that board meetings of the new body set up to boost private sector jobs in the area will be an all-male affair, according to its new chairman John Lewis managing director Andy Street
After the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) interim chairman Bridget Blow bows out to make way for Mr Street in May, a team of high-profile businessmen including Nick Bunker, UK president of Kraft Foods and Cadbury and Stephen Hollis, Midland chairman of KPMG, will share responsibility with seven of the nine local authorities in the LEP area for shaping economic growth (which are also all led by men apart from Redditch, which has duel membership with the Worcestershire LEP and is represented by the leader of Bromsgrove District Council).
But the LEP denies any kind of conspiracy – there just weren’t enough women from the private sector putting themselves forward for the role of board member, it maintains.
Mr Street said: “Am I happy with the composition of the board in every respect other than the gender balance? Yes.
“We’ve got a good balance in terms of geography, sectors and of small and large organisations. But it is extremely regrettable that there are not more women on the board.”
According to the LEP, just 10 per cent of the 80 applications they received were from women – and many of those did not fit the criteria as they came from a public rather than private sector background.
And the LEP points out that the new board appointments will only be for a year – after which Mr Street expressed hope that more women would come forward to balance the numbers.
But that has not convinced critics who have dismissed the LEP’s defence that there were simply not enough women applying for the high-profile roles.
Labour MP for Edgbaston Gisela Stuart pointed to the external board of Birmingham Business School, which she is a member of.
“We have probably almost half women on there including people like Angela Maxwell from Acuwomen.
“This notion that the West Midlands does not have a sufficient number of women with practical business experience is not correct.
“To have a local enterprise board for the West Midlands with no women is just from the age of the dinosaurs.”
Ms Stuart accused the LEP of not being proactive enough in soliciting applications from women.
“Did anybody suggest that they went back and looked at their address book, at the people from the private sector who dealt with the regional development agencies and pick up the phone?
“You don’t need to employ headhunters but I think it’s a responsibility of a body like that to ensure that the board is properly composed.
“If you feel you are not properly composed, you go out and do something about it.
“No company would say ‘what a shame – we’ve got a board which is really not very satisfactory.’”
Sally Arkley, director of the Women’s Business Development Agency, also questioned whether the LEP had done enough “outreach” to encourage female applicants.
But she pointed to the deeper issue of the lack of women from a commercial background willing to take on leadership positions within the wider business community.
“In my experience a lot of private sector women are disengaged and not connected to the business community as a whole,” she said.
Although women were present at city centre networking events, many still did not feel comfortable breaking into the heart of Birmingham’s business community, she added.
“Women haven’t got to that level of networking and feeling part of the ‘inner crew’ as it were,” she said.
“In a great civic city like Birmingham there isn’t that history of women being involved, other than in the public sector and charity.
“I think you would find the same in London and in any great city – it’s about what is traditional and what people are used to.
“But I’m sure Birmingham and its businesses are missing a trick here.”
She said there was a need to support women to develop the confidence to put themselves forward for high-profile leadership roles.
“You can’t march them up and make them do it – it’s more of a long-term thing,” she said.
“For example we’ve got together with Birmingham University to create and women’s enterprise and leadership centre.
“That’s not leadership of a women’s business community – we don’t want to create a parallel universe – it’s supporting women to become part of mainstream leadership.
“There is a glass ceiling, whether it happens to be an individual company or the business community as a whole,” she said.