The issue of women, or the lack of them, occupying top spots in UK business has been in the spotlight this week. On Monday the Financial Times reported that it had seen draft EU legislation proposing to force Europe’s listed companies to reserve 40% of non-executive director positions for women or face fines or other sanctions. On Tuesday the Evening Standard sponsored a debate on the issue headed by a panel of successful professional women, including Cherie Booth QC, and Helena Morrissey, the chief executive of the global investment company, Newton Investment.
The issue is, of course, a perennial one whose first proposition is the simple fact that there are far fewer women in powerful positions. For example, in FTSE 100 companies women make up only 16.7 % of all board posts. In FTSE 250 companies that figure drops to just 10.9%.
The argument goes that fewer women in the top jobs is a bad thing because it does nothing to further equality, does not allow business to benefit from the different skills that women have to offer, and allows gung-ho men free rein to take testosterone fuelled decisions that land the economy and the country in serious strife.
Opinion on how to address the issue is split in to two camps. On one side there are voices, like Cherie Booth, who support the idea of mandatory quotas, compelling businesses to appoint a certain percentage of female directors to their boards. On the other are those, like Helen Morrissey, who argue that imposing quotas would just be substituting one form of discrimination for another and that the only meaningful change must come organically, with businesses learning to recognise the benefits of diversely composed boards whose members may offer views slightly different to simply f**king the competition up the arse by any means possible.
Which camp is right is anyone's guess. Organic change seems like the most natural solution. We know that girls now routinely outperform boys at school and university and that the average 30 year old female graduate earns more than her average male counterpart. Project that forward and, save for the unavoidable hurdle or maternity, one would expect to see more women taking up the top jobs in the future, on merit. However, the pace of organic change is slow. There have been voluntary targets in this country for some time but these have seen an annual increase of women on boards rise at just 0.6 % per year. Lord Davies’s report on the issue in 2011 found that, at the current rate of change, it would take around 70 years to achieve gender balanced board rooms.
Compelling businesses to appoint women would seem like the quick fix. But any compulsion can only work if it is meaningful. Simply requiring businesses to appoint a certain number of women to board positions could quickly turn into a box ticking exercise with companies appointing women as non executive or puppet directors leaving Dawn, the tea lady, trying to push her agenda for a greater spend on garibaldi biscuits and hot cross buns whilst men press on with the real business of change. Further, in Norway, the only helpful case study, the objective of achieving a 40% quota only worked after serious sanctions – including compulsory dissolution - were imposed for non compliant companies. For compulsion to work in the UK, similar sanctions would need to be put in place and that, say a number of lobby groups, could prevent businesses from taking decisions that are in their bests interests.
An interesting debate about how to solve the problem all of this is, but what appears to be missing is any sensible analysis of why the problem might exist in the first place. Is it necessarily an issue of prejudice that needs to be addressed or could it simply be that men and women don’t necessarily work well together in circumstances where they are not, generally speaking, bound together by the prospect of sex and reproduction? Even in the scenario where sex and reproduction is on offer we know that around 50% of relationships end in separation, often as a result of ‘irreconcilable differences’. Do we really want these differences to be hammered out around the board tables of our most powerful and influential corporations?
Could it be that men fed up with getting it in the ear from their wives at home, simply don’t want to come to work and get it in the ear there too? Or perhaps men take comfort from knowing that when they return to the board room from lunch their papers will be where they left them and won’t have been filed neatly away on the book shelf next to the magazines? Maybe they just want board meetings to start on time?
One thing is for sure: any proposed solution to the inequality must surely first properly indentify the reasons for it and only then will a workable solution be arrived at. Artificially creating gender balanced board rooms may only serve to foster conflict where it need not exist. And consider - there is nothing stopping women in positions of power from preferring the softer skills of women over the more gung-ho approach of men if that’s what they believe will be to the ultimate benefit of their businesses.