Are boardroom quotas for women patronising or positive?


Do women need positive discrimination to reach the top?

It’s a topic that keeps rearing its head. The boardrooms in this country are severely lacking in female representation. Where are all the women?

Get most people on the topic and they will repeat the same rhetoric: it’s ridiculous that while the world of business if full of intelligent inspiring women, when it comes to the all-important board, women are left out in the cold.

But despite the apparent support for a levelling of the sex-stakes, nothing seems to be happening.

The statistics are gob-smacking. Research by headhunters, Spencer Stuart has found that only 5.7 per cent of the executive, board-level directors of FTSE 150 companies are women. Some 21 per cent of those companies do not have a single woman on the board.

One person who isn’t content to keep waiting for the imbalance to “right itself” is European justice commissioner Viviane Reding. Yesterday she announced the first step towards legal targets for the minimum number of females in top jobs.

She believes that without radical action, equality will take another 40 years. She’s called for a mandatory increase in female representation on boards – she wants 30 per cent of big companies’ directors to be women by 2015, and 40 per cent by 2020.

Any attempt to impose a legal quota on businesses in London is likely to cause a stir. We thought we’d sound out the response of some of London’s business community to see what the general feeling is.

And unlike the boardrooms in question, results were mixed.

In support of a quota

“Cameron is not being bold enough. By not setting quotas for women on boards, he keeps the Catch 22 situation going”

Professor Keith Cuthbertson of Cass Business School

“Currently in the UK about 10 per cent of company directors, 9 per cent of high court judges, 14 per cent of university vice chancellors and one member of the Supreme Court are women. Yet there are lots of women out there who score highly on educational levels and general work experience. What’s going on? Why is the representation of women on boards so low?

“Lord Davies in his recent report provides a major reason for this. Over 50 per cent of board appointments are via personal friendships – only four per cent have formal interviews and only one per cent are advertised. Competitive entrance, as for example in the UK civil service, is thought to provide a fair and efficient way of appointing quality people. Contrast this with the UK companies’ approach to board appointments.

“Lord Davies and presumably Mr Cameron reject quotas partly on the grounds of tokenism – a woman will feel inferior to the men if she is appointed under a quota system – even if she had to beat say 15 other well qualified women candidates for the post.

“This would be true if the talent pool of women was small. But with an average board size of 15 you only need 1,500 qualified women today, in the whole of the UK (let alone the world) to have 100 per cent women on the boards of all the FTSE100 companies.

“Cameron is not being bold enough. By not setting quotas for women on boards, he keeps the Catch 22 situation going. Boards can always say to women: ‘We can’t appoint you to our board because you have no boardroom experience’.

“Another reason why quotas are important is that they get us to a critical mass. With more women on boards, they can act as mentors for future potential women members and push for measures to remove the glass ceiling on internal promotions to high level posts.”

“The reality is that we just don’t see the balance happening and without some sort of push”

Shaa Wasmund is the founder and CEO of Smarta.com

“In theory I don’t agree with having a quota because it should all be based on merit, but the reality is that we just don’t see the balance happening. Without some sort of push, we will never get to that point.

“I’m not a believer in positive discrimination, but that only works on the assumption that everybody is able to compete for a place on a board with the same critieria. That is not always the case.

“It is insane when you look at all of the young talented women out there in business that they are not represented in the boardrooms.

“The danger with a quota is that you will have companies simply ticking boxes – what we need to come with that is companies actively seeking their boardrooms to be representative of real life and of their own customer base.

“I think it it does damage to people’s businesses not to have women on the boards – it shows the companies to be lacking in understanding of their own customer base. You wouldn’t dream of having a board of directors only from one industry – the opinions would be skewed towards one area of expertise. So it shouldn’t happen with only men in the boardroom.”

Against a quota

“It’s degrading and patronising”

Claire Wright is the managing director of global creative agency Gyro

“The top line is I can’t think of anything worse than women getting a leg up because they are female. Appointment should be about ability. I don’t need to be patronised by the fact that I ‘got the job because I filled a quota’. It’s a step back rather than a step forward.

“It will undermine women that have already made it onto the boards of these big companies. People will start to question whether someone made it because of their ability or simply because they ticked a box.

“It would be hugely damaging for the next generation also. The general feeling will be if you’re a female and you can’t quite make it, then don’t worry, you can make it with a quota!

“The only way to address the balance is to look at childcare. If the government is serious about sorting the situation they need to introduce tax relief on childcare. Women get penalised through tax for returning to work and this needs to change.”

“Quotas only serve to confirm the myth that women are inferior to men”

Shazia Awan is the CEO of Peachy Pink

“Women, regardless of ethnicity or culture, have fought for decades for equality between themselves and their male counterparts. At a time where there are numerous female CEOs, MDs and leaders it seems absurd to me that any woman would feel that they deserved preferential treatment based on gender alone.

“There is no denying that women would bring a fresh insight into the boardroom and that diversity is good for decision making in both politics and business. However, the notion of quotas is deeply flawed as it does little to change mindsets. Headhunters need to be encouraged to seek out women for these roles and equally women need to have the confidenc
e to go for the roles.

“If we women are to be truly equal we need to be ready to compete in the same environment as men. In my view, positive discrimination is simply not the answer to increasing female representation on boards.

“Every woman on every board would be open to the accusation that they were placed there to satisfy a quota and our abilities would be explicitly questioned, damaging existing women on boards as well as the aspirations of ambitious young women rising through the ranks. Quotas only serve to confirm the myth that women are inferior to men.”

“The prime minister suggested the use of targets rather than quotas, which is an approach I fully support”

Maggie Berry is the managing director of womenintechnology.co.uk

“Should companies be made to appoint a certain number of women to their boards in order to break the glass ceiling? This question gets put to me quite often.

“I always answer that it goes without saying that women want equality in the workplace. However, the majority of women want to get ahead in their jobs because they deserve it – not because of their gender.

“It’s a fantastic achievement to be promoted thanks to your hard work, ability and success. But to be promoted to board level just because a certain number of female places need to be filled would make most women feel insulted, rather than elated. In short, we want to be promoted on our own merits. So can the government and the business world do more to make this happen?

“During a speech at an event in Sweden, a country with a high proportion of female board members, Mr Cameron said he was not in favour of quotas to tackle the lack of female representation, but he will consider it if companies do not take action. He pointed out that there was overwhelming evidence that companies are run better when men and women work alongside each other.

“At present, just 15 per cent of the directors at major companies in the UK are women. In Sweden, women hold a quarter of board positions, and in Norway the percentage is even higher at 40 per cent.

“Mr Cameron went on to point out that although female board representation has increased slightly over the last couple of years, the rate needs to accelerate so that women make up at least 30 per cent of board members. The prime minister suggested the use of targets rather than quotas, which is an approach I fully support.”