By Fiona Hotston Moore.
Why not more women on boards today?
With one last effort we might actually get women properly represented in Britain’s boardrooms. The current situation is not good, with just 25 per cent of board places in FTSE 100 companies occupied by the Gender that Plays Less Golf, as we might be described. There are still far too few women on boards in the UK.
Yet this was still presented as something of a triumph when the percentage was reached last year, in line with a target set by the Government-backed Davies Review to encourage boardroom diversity.
But, as one journalist pointed out amid all the back-slapping about targets being reached, there are still more men named ‘John’ running the biggest 100 UK companies than all the female heads put together!
It hardly seems time to be ringing the victory bells.
Our advanced European rival, Norway, thinks 40 per cent is fairer and makes it mandatory. And why not? As the old Chinese proverb has it, ‘women hold up half the sky.’
The other problem is that when women are given roles in Britain they invariably are ‘non-executive’ ones, essentially advisory and technically powerless. So the Davies target itself is a sleight of hand.
What women should be getting is more executive roles, the ones that shape the direction of a firm. But that figure remains more or less constant across the country at six per cent. So much for the FTSE showing a lead.
The reason they don’t is due to, let us charitably suggest, unconscious male bias. No man with both feet in the 21st Century seriously argues against equality. But some sustain it more subtly.
The case for quotas
Nobody wants quotas wherever they can be avoided in life. But the fact remains that British businesses are demonstrably dragging their feet in giving women real authority.
Temporary quotas, which would be a compromise with those who find the very idea of them demeaning, might help rebalance boards. The Government or Confederation of British Industry could drive this forward with ease. But the silence so far is eloquent.
The problem with the voluntary approach favoured in the UK is that it all but represents a call to inaction, a classic political, foot-shuffling fudge. Why bother doing more than the minimum is the real message?
The argument that making a percentage mandatory would mean ‘tokenism’ at the top is an insult to the available qualified women who could be filling more of the jobs. It is also, incidentally, the same sort of argument trotted out years ago by those who tried to limit the advance of minorities.
What it would certainly mean, of course, is more competition for plum postings, something you might think a well run business would want to encourage.
Even Lord Davies acknowledged in an interview as his final report was published last year that putting women in symbolic rather than significant roles was no job done.
The failure to take this issue more seriously is more than an affront to equality, it denies UK Plc a vast pool of talent.
We now have a highly educated generation as the university system has expanded, but we appear to be happy for half of them to face less opportunity to reach the top than the other.
It also sends a poor impression to schools. Women can certainly help by mentoring and acting as role models for students. Social networking offers many ways to build supportive groups.
There are no easy solutions to wiping out structural prejudice. But it is striking that a society not shy about using legislation to wipe out discrimination on most grounds should be shy of tackling this one the same way.
It is not all gloom. A number of major employers are taking the issue seriously. Lloyds Banking Group, for example, has promised that 40 per cent of its 5,000 top jobs will be occupied by women by 2020. That is the sort of public commitment and yardstick we should be seeing more of from British firms to get more women on boards.
Those of us who want to see faster and better change must do all we can to cajole and encourage, and to lead by example. And we need men to support us, not to cough politely and look away.
The UK economy is not so strong that it can any longer afford to ignore female minds. Women are creative problem solvers, and many are already juggling lives that involve assuming most of the day-to-day responsibilities of raising families.
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Fiona Hotston Moore is a partner heading the forensic accounting team at accountancy firm Ensors, and was one of only two women to ever head a Top 30 UK accountancy firm. She campaigns to help women achieve senior roles in business and is a regular commentator on diversity issues.