London's lord mayor Fiona Woolf takes aim at the glass ceiling

Fiona Woolf, the first female lord mayor of the City of London in 30 years, and only the second in 800 years, is on a mission to push for greater diversity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 4:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 4:24am

Fiona Woolf is shooting high with her ambitions to promote London's financial markets, but her aim is just as sharp on a priority close to her heart: boosting career opportunities for women and minorities.

History reminds Woolf that being only the second woman to serve as lord mayor of the City of London in more 800 years means there is plenty of catch-up required on the diversity front.

Woolf, a lawyer who was elected to the high-profile post in November last year, has been a global ambassador for the financial hub, visiting key overseas centres such as Hong Kong.

Like her predecessors, she has been busy talking up London's strengths as a centre for yuan trading, Islamic finance and a capital-raising centre for clean energy. But her tenure in the mayoral post is distinguished by her push for greater diversity in the workplace.

"I would definitely like to promote to all companies the need for a diversity hiring policy so that they can access a wider pool of talent," she told the South China Morning Post on a recent visit to Hong Kong.

Woolf cites the long wait - since 1189, when the lord mayor's post was established - until Mary Donaldson's election win in 1983 as lending sufficient urgency to the task.

"I absolutely do not want to wait another 30 years to see another woman be elected as lord mayor. Otherwise, it would mean my diversity programme would be a failure," she said.

Under the diversity programme set up by Woolf, 34 prominent companies - including HSBC and Lloyds - are sponsoring a series of breakfast lectures, seminars and conferences at major London venues to drive home advantages of a wider talent pool.

While women largely have the same opportunities as men for university education and the take-up of entry-level jobs, Woolf cited the "glass ceiling" as the barrier that prevents them from climbing to the top of the corporate ladder.

Just 6 per cent of executive committee and operations board members of FTSE-100 companies are women, Woolf said, in highlighting the dominance of Western males in the executive ranks and boardrooms in particular. "In the 21st century, we do not expect 50 per cent of women to take the lead roles in a large company, but we do not think this figure should be at 6 per cent."

In a review of 35 Hong Kong blue-chip companies last month, fund manager BlackRock found that 13 per cent of directors were women, slightly up from the market average of 10 per cent in 2012, when the stock exchange announced a plan to require companies to implement a diversity policy.

The British government appointed former Standard Chartered chairman and trade minister Mervyn Davies to study how the country's corporate boards could be diversified. His report, released in February 2011, proposed companies should have at least 25 per cent of female directors by next year.

Last year, women accounted for 17 per cent of directors at FTSE-100 companies, up from 8.5 per cent in 2011.

"The world has changed but it has not changed fast enough. It should also be noticed that many women have taken the non-executive director roles while there were few taking the c-levels executive roles such as chief executives or chief operating officers," Woolf said. "We need to make sure companies offer opportunities for women, those with disabilities, gays and lesbians as well as people from different nationalities and with disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to take up the senior roles."

Woolf said companies gained from a diversity policy by gaining "people who challenge the traditional thinking and this drives innovation".

Her personal experience highlights the hard work required to break the glass ceiling. After studying law at the University of Keele in England, and then in Strasbourg, France, Woolf qualified as a solicitor in 1973 while working in the corporate and banking fields at Clifford Chance, where she served for five years.

During this time she visited Hong Kong many times, a place Woolf said she loved for its energy and culture.

She then moved to CMS Cameron McKenna and ran its banking and project finance practice in Bahrain for three years and negotiated the treaty and concession agreement for the Channel Tunnel on her return. She also advised on many water and electricity projects to 25 governments in 40 jurisdictions. She was elected president of the Law Society of England and Wales in 2006.

For all her corporate achievements, Woolf says none have come her way without a battle. In 1981, she was the first woman to become a partner at CMS, after pushing against male resistance.

"I had to ask for that and my request was met almost with surprise. People tend to think that women do not want to stay late as they assume they would want to take care of their children. They also assume women do not want to be relocated to other offices overseas. But in fact, why don't they just ask if the women would like to do the job?" she said.

Such unconscious bias, she said, had led to many major transactions at companies assigned to the male junior staff instead of their female counterparts. Such practices have prevented women from gaining experience to handle the big deals or landing promotion to the top roles.

Woolf attributes part of her success to the support from her husband of 25 years, Nicholas, a chartered accountant and tax adviser.

"My husband is working with me as a team and I ask him to do a lot of things. My stepson is also an active parent and he has done a lot of parenting work," she said, adding that she also has a stepdaughter. "This shows both men and women may focus on family or they may like to spend more time at work."

Outside work, Woolf is a music lover and keen supporter of charities.