• Quotas for women ‘inevitable’ say female business heads

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  • 21 Feb 2012
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There has been slow progress in efforts to increase the number of women in boardrooms and quotas may be the only way to remedy the situation, according to the heads of female business networks at top UK companies.

Leadership consultancy White Water Group surveyed the leaders of 30 such networks, representing 10,000 women in leading private sector firms. Two-thirds of them (67 per cent) did not feel that opportunities for women have improved in their organisation in the year since Lord Davies published his report into the subject. The same two-thirds felt that compulsory quotas were the only way to achieve Lord Davies’ target of 25 per cent women on FTSE boards by 2015.

Moreover, four out of five (80 per cent) think it will take 20 years to achieve the more ambitious target of 30 per cent, which has been the stated goal of many reformers.

“The proportion of female directors at FTSE 100 companies rose from 12.5 per cent in 2010 to 15 per cent in 2011, but the women we spoke to don’t feel that change is going fast enough or far enough,” said Averil Leimon, co-founder of White Water Group and one of the behind the survey. “Quotas may be a blunt instrument but they may be inevitable.”

Even if it is used, compulsion would not be enough to bring about a cultural shift, and Leimon called on senior men to recognise the business case for change.

“Getting this right is not just about careers for women; it’s essential for the economy as a whole,” she said. “We’ve shown that businesses with equal numbers of men and women at the senior management level are more profitable than businesses with predominantly male leaders. What’s more, demographic shifts mean that by 2030 the UK will be short of 1.3m people of leadership age. More women in senior management would address both these issues.”

The finding come on the same day as a European-wide study from Mercer identified a “maternity penalty” for women seeking leadership positions, as organisations operate an unconscious bias against women with childcare responsibilities.

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  • Women in the boardroom should be there based on their merit and ability to perform the role given, and I believe that the majority of women executives would agree with me. Whilst monitoring and measuring how many women hold boardroom positions, whether FTSE 100 or not, is a good initiative I do not believe that setting quotas is the answer. This would only serve to deliver false statistics as to exactly how many successful women there are. I therefore agree that compulsion would not be enough to bring about a cultural shift.<br/><br/>Hedda is right in that many of the larger private sector firms are not in the FTSE; however there are several other leading private sector firms that tend to be ‘family centric’ and breaking through this to obtain a senior position can sometimes be difficult.<br/>With regard to organisations operating an unconscious bias against women with childcare responsibilities, this is something that I have personally observed; not because organisations are not caring but because it can sometimes be both costly and disruptive to business. Furthermore many senior successful women I have known impose their own ‘glass ceiling’ whereby they simply reject a boardroom post placing their family above their career; and this is clearly their personal choice.<br/>There is a lot of genuine female talent out in the marketplace and many women, like myself have become so frustrated at the lack of senior boardroom positions available to them that they decide, like me, to set up their own businesses; I believe that this, in part, is why we have seen a slight increase in the number of women in boardrooms and not necessarily because legitimate positions have become available.<br/>Trisha Proud<br/>Partners in Solutions Ltd<br/>Training & Consultancy

  • I agree with the overall thrust - that only quotas will change the picture with any speed. Sadly, many of our largest private sector employers are not in the FTSE - some due to status ( Nationwide Building Society and Co-op Bank for example) and others due to foreign ownership ( Cadburys, IBM, Siemens etc).  If every FTSE 100 appointed 2 additional women directors that would still only be 200 women in total.  We need as a country to focus on maximising female leadership capability across our commercial activity, and not just in one section.