7 Mar 2012

Women in finance: BBC CFO Zarin Patel

As part of a series of articles looking at women in business and accountancy, the BBC’s CFO talks to economia about why a successful approach to boardroom diversity demands a long-term investment in the talent pipeline – and why it matters to look for new talent in less obvious places

How is the BBC doing generally in terms of gender diversity?

Half the BBC’s workforce is female and that is reflected in finance. Just over a third (35%) of our senior leaders are women and 45% of the board. That’s well above average and are only a few companies can match it.

But we haven’t just arrived at these figures over night. The BBC has had targets for quite a while – and yes, that’s targets but not quotas. We started thinking about these issues almost 20 years ago, largely because we had very enlightened leadership who thought that there should be more women in senior positions, if only to reflect population trends. They did some very clever and interesting things very early on, which is why we have the stats we do now.

You have to think about this as a long-term target. It’s very important to work on the talent pipeline, rather than just putting women on boards because it’s fashionable to do so.

So you are an advocate of targets rather than quotas?

I think the 30% Club and The Davies Report are spot on. They’ve adopted a mix of explaining why it matters, and keeping on convincing chairmen of public companies why it’s important. And I think there has been huge progress in this area. In the end, as a woman, you want to do good work and be recruited into a role because of who you are and what you do, rather than because of the fact that you are a particular gender? Enlightened companies will start to see that.

Is it not a little incredible to still be having these conversations at all in 2012…

I know. Oh, I know.

…but finance is still seen as a male profession?

It shouldn’t be. Finance is a great profession for women and I have a lot of women working for me. In fact, I think our profession actually should have a higher proportion of women. It’s a skill you can take with you, it’s a portable skill, and it’s a skill you can develop even if you are not working.

I think as a profession we should have far more women, and I am slightly surprised when I look at the professional firms how few of their senior partners are women.

In the media industry I think women have grabbed the opportunities and taken them, and that’s why we have such a high percentage.

So what’s next for the BBC in terms of gender?

To be honest, we have stopped worrying about gender issues at the BBC. In fact, in my team one of the things we worry about is whether there are enough men. I think people are thinking hard about the way the needs of society are changing. In the UK we are getting much better at diversity, but I think we still haven’t thought hard enough about things such as disability and ethnic diversity.

If you think about the nature of immigration in our country, in the next 15 years, a lot of our younger generation will either not have been born here or will not have gone to school here. Therefore they won’t be part of what we all grew up with. But they will be in the workforce and they will change the nature of our workforce.

Companies need different voices to cope with these issues and with changing group dynamics. One trick is that when developing your talent pipeline, and thinking about who your emerging leaders might be, don’t look in the obvious places for them. It’s too comfortable to look in the obvious places.

Where are the not obvious places?

Well, for example, you and I are not the target audience group for the station Radio One Extra – it’s for young, black urban audiences. So, when that station started up six years ago, we didn’t recruit in the Guardian, we went to record shops in Brixton.
And what we have now is a generation of really talented radio producers who had grown up on One Extra, and are now coming into the wider BBC.

Because our audiences are so diverse in many ways – northern audiences are completely different to audiences south of London – diversity means all sorts of different things and different people. We need to meet all their needs.

Women were predicted to suffer the most in the recession. Are there any measures the government could introduce to help women at work?

One area is the whole maternal and paternal leave issue - making it ok for both men and women to have careers through their family rearing years. There are a lot of men who, because they have wives who’ve got big jobs, have equal child caring responsibilities now. So the environment one creates for both men and women is important. Overall I’d say parental leave, and making that easier for both large and small companies is important. How you achieve that I don’t know. It’s often hard if you’re a small company to bear the cost – but we want more people to start small companies, because that’s where jobs growth will come, and that’s where growth in the economy will come from.

ICAEW says one of the main things it hears is that women’s confidence needs boosting to reach the top – do you think that’s true?

Yes, I think it is. Two of the people who work for me have gone through the Institute’s programme on Women in Leadership. One has just become a divisional CFO for me, and the other I hope will be.

The Institute has been good at focusing on women in their 30s, ready to step up to board-level and to big jobs, and it has given them really practical and pragmatic advice from people who really know their stuff and who have been there themselves. I think that’s been a really amazing benefit.


Zarin Patel is Chief Financial Officer, BBC, and Non-Executive Director, BBC Worldwide. She is a member of the BBC's Executive Board