Outsiders In: There are a lot of women making a splash in British business, but they’re not British. They’re Americans

By Rana Foroohar

Oct. 20 issue — If a spate of recent headlines is any indication, there’s never been a better time to be a British businesswoman. In the past few months Barbara Cassani, the former CEO of Go Airlines, was appointed to head London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics and sit on the board of Britain’s largest retailer of food and clothing, Marks & Spencer. Shell CFO Judith Boynton was promoted to the board of her company, and Laura Tyson continued to make waves as head of the London Business School. Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino led a list of the most powerful women executives outside America, and others, like Morgan Stanley Europe vice chair Amelia Fawcett, and Burberry CEO Rose Marie Bravo, also made the cut.

THERE’S JUST ONE problem with this list of British achievers—they’re all Americans. According to a recent study by Britain’s Cranfield School of Management, 32 percent of women who sit on the boards of companies on the FTSE 100, an index of the largest British companies, are from overseas. (Though no comparable figure exists for men, experts estimate it’s much lower.) The majority of those women are American. As one well-known British headhunter puts it, “If you want to sit on a board in Britain, you’d better be American, or have a title.”

Historically, American women have always done well in Britain. The country’s first female M.P. was Nancy Astor, a spunky Virginian who came to the old country, married well, and as an outsider was perhaps better poised to break the rules of political convention and still be accepted than were her British sisters. Likewise, many American executive women in Britain today say that not being British gives them an excuse to skirt London’s stifling business etiquette. “You can get away with a lot more, especially if you use the stereotypes to your advantage,” says Allyson Stewart-Allen, an American marketing entrepreneur married to a Labour M.P. “When discussing a potential project, I can say to clients very early on, ‘I know it’s so American of me to ask, but what’s your budget?’ That’s not usually done here. They can then laugh at how American I am, but I still get to ask my question.”

American bluntness can be a big selling point for men or women (though some say it’s more palatable when delivered by the fairer sex). The fund-management firm Barclays Global Investors recently chose Stewart-Allen over a British man for a job that involved retraining staff to be more direct when pursuing new clients. That’s not an unusual situation. “Americans have a great ability to jump into the heart of an issue, while we sort of flounder around a bit,” says Alastair King, a managing director at Galahad Capital who recently completed a project with another American, Lucy Marcus of Marcus Venture Consulting. When asked if this approach causes culture clashes, King says, “Our culture is acclimatizing to them, rather than the other way around.”

Americans in Britain are in a strong position to play the role of change agents. Bravo succeeded in transforming formerly stuffy British raincoat maker Burberry into a fashion label worn by the likes of Kate Moss. Cassani proved a major airline could compete with the cheap carriers when she took over Go for British Airways. Tyson, a former economic adviser to Bill Clinton, is updating tenure and fund-raising procedures at the London Business School. Beverly Malone, also a former Clinton adviser (on health care), is pushing the issue of better pay for nurses as head of Britain’s (and the world’s) largest nursing union.

During the late 1990s boom days, a number of younger American women capitalized on the European desire to adopt Yankee business culture by launching start-ups and networking groups, while generally being more comfortable with hype and the limelight than their British counterparts. A California-born venture capitalist named Julie Meyer founded First Tuesday, which staged high-profile mixers for dot-com types. Before a series of overambitious deals she led began unraveling, Floridian Robin Saunders was the It Girl of London finance, turning the German bank West LB into a City player. A recent study by the research group Catalyst found that American female executives, in contrast to their European counterparts, believed choosing highly visible projects was one of the five most important ways to get ahead.

The study also found that European women were slightly less optimistic about their career prospects than Americans. This reflects what may be the most important reason behind the clout of American women in Britain—the relative lack of opportunities for British women. Women hold 12.4 percent of board seats in the United States, but only 6.2 percent in Britain. Likewise, while 45 percent of Fortune 500 companies have more than one woman on their boards, only 15 percent of top British companies do. Julie Mellor, head of Britain’s Equal Opportunity Commission, puts this down to an old boys’ culture: “British boards have not professionalized their selection process.” Also, British firms are not legally required to report the number of women and ethnic minorities that they hire, as many American firms are. Ironically, many American women say that a less modern, diverse and competitive business culture is one reason for their success. “Quite frankly, Britain is a pretty easy place to come and do a good job,” says venture capitalist Ruth Storm, an American who began her career in London 19 years ago as a typist.

No doubt British women could make an impact if there were more of them on the executive track. American women have been in the workplace in large numbers for a longer period of time. Also, while 72 percent of American women with dependent children work, 65 percent of British women do. After a second baby, 56 percent of American mothers with two children (and at least one preschooler) choose to work, compared with 47 percent of Britons. British women take much more time off for maternity leave, and spend more time with their kids during the day, than American mothers do. British mothers also engage in part-time work in much higher percentages than American women do.

It’s clear British women are on a slower track, but the reasons are hotly debated. Mellor blames inadequate child care and a lack of career opportunities. Others, like London School of Economics researcher Catherine Hakim, believe British women simply prefer a more balanced life. Lesley Knox, a British high-flier, is one of many who are trying to find the right way forward. After several big jobs, including a directorship at Kleinwort Benson, she has begun moving into non-executive-director roles so she can spend more time with her young daughter. “British women are trying really, really hard to get the balance right, and maybe American women just don’t fuss as much about it anymore,” says Knox. She’s got a point. In the recent best-selling novel “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” a London fund manager and mother frantically uses a rolling pin to “distress” store-bought mince pies into looking homemade for her child’s school party. It’s hard to imagine a working Wall Street mom fretting so about her reputation as a baker.

Europe is not as ready to embrace the unconflicted businesswoman. A survey of European directors shows that stereotypes of women’s abilities and a lack of female role models are among the top five barriers to executive advancement. Yet the same trends that attract Americans—globalization and modernization—may eventually put more British women in positions of power. British and European Union legislators are encouraging companies to get more aggressive about hiring and promoting women. The EOC is quietly pushing the issue of women on corporate boards and aggressively campaigning for better child care. The most progressive companies, like BT, BP and Shell, have launched mentoring programs designed to get even more women into the uppermost ranks. Someday British women may hold as much power in British business as American women do.


20 October 2003

In the Press Archive