The march of the top-level female executive continues at an impressive pace, which is good news for everyone says Melanie Chell

In 2011 Lord (Mervyn) Davies wrote a report into male dominance in the UK’s boardrooms. He said FTSE 100 companies should aim for their boards to be 25% female by 2015 – a target that could be achieved without positive discrimination.

The latest statistics from January make encouraging reading. They show that for the FTSE 100, women account for 20.4% of directorships.

This means we’ve come a long way since 2011 when that figure stood at 12.5%, but we still have a long way to go.

And with just over a year to go until Lord Davies’ deadline, the time for discussion is over. We need to see concrete action and leadership.

When I was a newly qualified solicitor I started to attend Finance & Leasing Association (FLA) events and tried to build my own network.

This was an intimidating task. The first time I attended an FLA conference in Coventry when I was one of only two or three ladies in the room, I was far too nervous to introduce myself and spent the day on the sidelines.

However, I persevered and was single-minded in my pursuit of a fulfilling career in the legal profession.

Despite taking time out to have two children, I now find myself in a senior leadership position within Shoosmiths LLP and happily, and comfortably, attend many industry networking events every year.

First for diversity

Shoosmiths, of course, is a firm with an inspirational female chief executive. It was ranked first in a diversity survey conducted by the Black Solicitors Network.

Shoosmiths has achieved success in its diversity agenda because it is driven by values. These values guide how we work together and how we provide our clients with the very best service.

Those values are also accompanied by a complete lack of hierarchy, zero tolerance for arrogance and pomposity and clear thinking and mutual support.

Every partner and senior manager believes in our values and behaves in line with them promoting a positive, professional and co-operative working culture where everyone is valued.

I have no doubt that this ethos is the reason I have succeeded at Shoosmiths.

But despite the fact that the legal profession is becoming more diverse, men still dominate the banking and leasing industry.
The reasons for this have always interested me, and so I was honoured to be invited to become a Fellow of the Leasing Foundation and to be involved in the Foundation’s Women in Leasing initiative.

Mary McNamara, chair of the Leasing Foundation Governors said: "It is really important that we don’t only see this as an issue for women in leasing and asset finance – everything we hear, and all the research we read, tells us that talented women in positions of authority means better-functioning, more effective and more profitable organisations. This is not an issue of ‘women’s rights’ – it’s a core business issue."

This opportunity to develop women in our industry should not be seen as a favour to women, but rather a step that would be good for all of us. We need to position leasing as a more attractive proposition for women.

Women’s career development

We held the second Women in Leasing meeting in London on 18 November 2013 at which gender diversity researcher Dr Savita Kumra talked about women’s career development in professional service firms.

She emphasised the importance of impression management and building and leveraging social capital.
The meeting also included workshop sessions around topics including confidence building and networking, and was attended by women and men from across the industry.

The next meeting was held on 5 March, focusing on practical strategies and paving the way for more focused training and development targeted at women in leasing and asset finance.

Research demonstrates why the work being done by the Leasing Foundation is so important.

A report published by Catalyst revealed that companies with more women board directors performed better financially on three key measures:

  • Return on equity: on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53%.
  • Return on sales: on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 42%.
  • Return on invested capital: on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 66%.

The correlation between gender diversity on boards and corporate performance can also be found across most industries – from retail to information technology.

Indeed the lack of gender and ethnic diversity at board level is frequently given as one of the contributory factors in the demise of Nokia.

Consequently, it is safe to say that this would be true of the leasing industry. We should encourage mentoring, coaching, more female role models, and improving fairness in working practices.

I would encourage all of the banks and leasing companies to support the Women in Leasing initiative and to contribute to the conversation about how we might change things to make leasing a more diverse and modern industry which can play its part in helping the country hit its targets.

In the words of a truly inspiring female leader, Sheryl Sandberg: "The time is long overdue to encourage more women to dream the possible dream."

Melanie Chell is a partner is Shoosmith’s asset finance practice