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June 11, 2013

Burberry CEO Is First Woman to Top Executive Pay League Should Feminists Celebrate?

By Spear's

Angela Ahrendts, Burberry’s chief executive, took home ’16.9m last year, more than any other FTSE 100 executive. What does this mean for ordinary women?

For the first time ever, a woman has topped the executive pay league. Angela Ahrendts, Burberry’s chief executive, took home £16.9m last year, more than any other FTSE 100 executive. 

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, my natural instinct is to celebrate whenever a woman smashes a new record or breaks into a formerly male-only club. On the other, it’s not clear Ahrendts’ enviable windfall will have much impact on women more generally.

There is of course a line of argument that feminists shouldn’t be distracted by goings on among the privileged elites. The suggestion is that there’s no point worrying about the fact that women make up less than a fifth of FTSE 100 boards at a time when 45 percent of single parents (predominantly women) sit below the poverty line, or when 1.2 million women last year suffered domestic abuse, or when the pay gap between men and women is still 15 per cent. 

I think, however, that it’s a mistake to think that the achievements of the UK’s most privileged women have no bearing on the lives of ordinary women. The reason I’ve argued for quotas increasing the number of women on FTSE 100 boards, for instance, is because I think the world of work is unfairly skewed against women, and we need strong female voices at the very top to shake things up. 

One of the many reasons, for instance, that single mothers often struggle financially is that childcare is cripplingly expensive and rarely subsidised or provided by employees, and that flexitime or remote working are not offered often enough to new mothers wanting to return to work. Admittedly, this isn’t a miracle cure —if you work at a supermarket check out, you can’t work remotely— but parent-friendly workplaces could help thousands of women a year and could help close the gender pay gap at less-than-stratospheric income levels.

High-flying women can provide the less tangible benefit of acting as a role model for younger generations, and the more measurable benefit of providing mentorship and guidance to more junior employees. They have the power, oversight and influence to close the gender pay gap across companies, and to speak out against the kinds of things that can make it so unpleasant for women breaking into previously male-dominated professions — like sexual harassment and bullying old boys clubs.

And yet this is exactly the kind of role that Ahrendts seems to have little interest in playing. She has spoken out against quotas for instance, arguing that you should ‘Just put the best person into the job. It is not about gender, it is about experience, leadership and vision. A man could do this job.’

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Like so many women before her, her own achievements (and no doubt sky high self-regard) have blinded her to the fact that the working world is not gender neutral. Until men and women genuinely have equal pay and opportunity, women need more support than they are getting. 

Much as I’d like to toast Ahrendts’ achievements, I’m afraid her multi-million pound pay cheque has done little more than illustrate that in today’s Britain, women can be just as ludicrously overpaid as men. 

Read more by Sophie McBain


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