Pearson headhunts female executives

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Pearson (NYSE: PSO - news) has appointed headhunting firm Egon Zehnder to find two female non-executive directors to join its increasingly male-dominated board.

The media and education group, which owns book publisher Penguin (SES: E1:P13.SI - news) and the Financial Times newspaper, has never actively sought one gender or another in the past. However, it is deliberately targeting women following the departures of former chief executive Dame Marjorie Scardino and Rona Fairhead, chief executive of the Financial Times Group.

Dame Marjorie stepped down at the end of last year. Ms Fairhead had been a favourite to replace her in the top job but lost out to rival John Fallon and resigned shortly afterwards. She will leave the company in April (Paris: FR0004037125 - news) , leaving just two women on the Pearson board: American educationalist Susan Furhman, and former BP (LSE: BP.L - news) director Vivienne Cox, both of whom are non-executives.

The small number of female board directors will be a considerable embarrassment to Pearson, which has traditionally prided itself on the gender balance of its board and the strong pipeline of senior female executives among its staff. Dame Marjorie made history as the first woman ever to lead a FTSE 100 (FTSE: ^FTSE - news) company, and took a parting shot at the lack of women on other FTSE 100 boards as she left Pearson.

“I thought in 1997 that by the time I left Pearson things would be different in terms of how many women there were as chief executives or chairmen or board members. It’s not too different and for that I’m sorry,” she said.

Egon Zehnder’s New York office is focusing particularly on women who run US universities and those in the technology industry two sectors becoming increasingly important to Pearson as it shifts focus from print media and towards faster-growing sectors.

The firm is expected to come up with a long- list of candidates by the end of the month.