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Even though the sun was blazing there was no temptation to miss being part of this debate at Coutts last night. After networking, champagne and canapés in Coutts’ delightful Garden Court in the Strand, an impressive panel of women prepared to give their views on what stopped women’s progression through organisations. You will find more about the women’s own achievements in the brief biographies below. First, here are a few of the ideas covered.

Electronic voting was first put to the test on the question, ‘Should boards be required to adhere to compulsory quotas?’ To my shock and dismay 68% voted NO! As the evening progressed we voted on a number of questions. Here are just a couple: Did having children automatically hold women back? The voters said No. The panel said ‘be strategic, have a plan, don’t apologise, find a way to make it work, give solutions not problems’ Pru Leith, who was a brilliant member of the panel, advised ‘faking it’ in various aspects of life. She illustrated how she well she had done this as a Mother by recalling how her son, aged 15 at the time, was  reading a newspaper that had a two page spread on her achievements as ‘Businesswoman of the Year’. ‘But none of this is true. You don’t have 500 people working for you?’, he exclaimed. ‘Of course I do’ she replied,’What do you think pays the school fees?’ ‘But you’re always here’, he said. Working Mothers spend so much time worrying about the impact on their children. Being there at the right times is all they need. Were senior people in organisations misogynistic? The voters said a resounding Yes, while the panel added that, in the main, much of this was due to unconscious bias rather than deliberate prejudice. Bless them – they didn’t even know they were doing it? A member of the audience whose first non exec position arose because of Norway’s 40% mandatory quotas ( shall I say that again? 40%, mandatory. Get it? Not 25% and if you don’t mind too much. . .) reported back that, although resistant at first, the men on Norwegian boards were quickly amazed to discover how much women contributed! Towards the end of the evening the original question ‘Should boards be required to adhere to compulsory quotas?’ This time 70% voted YES! Prue Leith commented that in the many situations where she experienced  before and after voting she usually despairs at the fact that no-one ever really reconsiders and changes their opinion but that this evening had demonstrated women’s capacity to reflect, learn and be flexible in their thinking – exactly what most organisations needed rather than dyed in the wool traditional approaches.

Sophie Raeworth

chaired the panel of impressive women.She regularly presents the BBC’s One, Six and Ten O’clock news bulletins and has fronted many of the BBC’s big events programmes including the Royal Wedding and the Countdown to 2012. She has also presented several documentaries, including The trouble with working women, and Panorama. Sophie joined the BBC as a trainee in 1993 and worked as a producer and reporter, before joining BBC Breakfast in 1997.

Louise Barnes

Louise has extensive experience across the retail sector. Most recently she was appointed as the executive chairman of Fenn Wright Manson. Prior to this she was CEO of Fat Face where she led the business’s successful growth from 2003 to 2010. Before her role at Fat Face, Louise was Monsoon’s brand director presiding over its successful rebranding and expansion.

Penny Hughes

Penny has been described as one the UK’s outstanding business leaders. At the age of 33, she became president of Coca-Cola UK and Ireland. Since then Penny has held a number of non-executive director positions including The Body Shop, Vodafone, and Trinity Mirror. In December 2009, she was appointed non-executive director of Morrison’s, the UK grocery chain. She is currently a director of Reuters, Home Retail Group, SEB (banking) in Sweden, Gap Inc USA, and was made a non- executive director for RBS in 2010.

Prue Leith

Prue Leith CBE is a restaurateur, caterer, TV cook, broadcaster, and cookery writer. She has also worked as the former director of British Rail, Safeway, Whitbread, Woolworths and Halifax and is currently a non- executive director of Orient Express Hotels Ltd. She has had an active career in charity and not-for-profit businesses, helping to found The British Food Trust.

Kathleen O’Donovan

Kathleen is the co-founder of Bird & Co, who specialise in the training and mentoring of women for the boardroom particularly as non-executive directors. She is currently on the board of four listed companies; Prudential, Great Portland Estates, ARM Holdings, and Trinity Mirror. She is also chairman of the trustees of the Invensys Pension Scheme. Prior to these roles, she worked as a non-executive director for EMI plc and O2, and was also chair of the Bank of England’s Audit Committee.

Allison Pearson

Allison is a Welsh journalist and author who recently wrote I Don’t Know How She Does It which follows the story of a female finance executive who is the breadwinner for her husband and two children. Her book sold over four million copies and the film adaptation, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan, was released this month.

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