What it takes to reach the top

Can tracking your workforce's menstruation cycles improve productivity? Sam Roddick is using the largely female workforce of her luxury sex shops to find out.

What it takes to reach the top There's even a plan for a "festival of menstruation", she told a slightly startled audience at a Guardian event last night.

"It's the greatest taboo and I want to tackle it," said the founder of Coco de Mer. "My instinct is that it will improve our work rate."

Gail Rebuck, one of four business leaders to talk about gender and business to about 100 ticketholders, has no intention of copying Roddick's menstrual experiment at publishers Random House Group and the reaction from the audience and colleagues suggests that she is not alone. But Rebuck welcomed any research that proved that increasing female participation improved innovation and the bottom line; such research would be the best way to convince people that more women are needed at senior levels. She cited earlier work done by Lynda Gratton at the London Business School which suggests that a 50/50 gender split improves innovation in a company, while management consultants McKinsey found that companies with more women on their boards outperformed rivals, with a 42% higher return on sales, a 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity. Does anyone know of any other research like this, either published or in the pipeline?

Bringing together business leaders from the worlds of books, sex, chocolate and outsourcing, the issues raised were diverse, from the importance of networking and mentoring to fears for a younger generation of women to the inevitable work-life balance.

The panel was evenly split on whether there should be quotas to tackle the fact that the number of women in the 100 largest boardrooms have stuck at about 12% for the past three years. It's even worse in smaller companies – 7.8% of FTSE 250 companies are women. In his review earlier this year Lord Davies, the former chief executive of Standard Chartered, rejected quotas but gave British business two years to show progress on diversity with a deadline of 2015 to get a quarter of board seats filled by women. Norway introduced a quota system in 2002 and now 40% of board members at Norwegian companies have to be female.

Suzanne Baxter at MITIE, a member of Opportunity Now, which works to increase diversity, said she was against quotas and that the problem was partly a supply or "pipeline" issue. So getting women to want to become board directors and get the relevant experience was the key. Part of the problem though is that boards focus on electing chief executives or other corporate leaders rather than searching for broader skills.

But Sophi Tranchell, managing director of Divine Chocolate, whose company is co-owned by Ghanaian cocoa farmers, said Divine proved that a quota was the only way to achieve change in a short period of time. Kuapo Kokoo, the cooperative union that owns 45% of Divine, elected its first female president last year. It operates a policy of sending one man and one woman to management meetings from each village.

Besides, added Tranchell, voluntary action often ends in failure. At Davos this year, the World Economic Forum insisted that companies brought one woman for every five tickets. Some companies simply limited their total to four. No need to worry about menstrual cycles then, of course.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jane Martinson, for The Guardian on Wednesday 30th March 2011 12.59 Europe/London

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