Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Boardroom quotas for women vital to economic good of UK

David Cameron

The more I listen to people like Baroness Sheila Noakes talking about gender in the boardroom, the more persuaded I am that immediate compulsory quotas are the only way forward for women in business.

The baroness, a non-executive director of the Royal Bank of Scotland, took part in the most extraordinary interview on the Today radio programme last week, on the Davies report, in which she said the fixation on quotas was silly, and that even a board of 20 men could be considered a balanced one, provided that the men think differently.

Then she showed her prejudice even more by asking why people say having more women on boards would bring a different perspective. Hello? Well, even the great John Humphrys choked at this, calling on Sarah Montague to help persuade Noakes that surely having a gender mix, as well as different personalities, would be healthy.

Noakes wasn't having it; nor did she think the Norwegian experience, where the government introduced quotas making it compulsory for companies to have 40% of women on their boards, was a good one.

In fact, she was contemptuous, arguing that quotas have led to Norwegian women holding seven or eight non-executive directorships (NED) each. So? What's wrong with that? The former Conservative House of Lords Treasury spokesman omitted to say she also sits on the boards of Carpetright and Severn Trent, is on the audit committee of both RBS and Severn, and is a co-director of the Thomson-Reuters Share Foundation. Not much free time, then.

Quotas are imperfect; tackling sensitive issues always will be. But the UK experience, since Davies suggested that a quarter of all NEDs be women by 2015, hasn't been great; in fact, it's lamentable. Only 33 companies from the FTSE 100 have bothered to inform him of their plans.

There's masses of research which shows that having more women on boards improves productivity and overall performance of companies.

You only have to look at Burberry, where two top women - Angela Ahrendts is chief executive and Stacey Cartwright is finance director - are enjoying spectacular success, demonstrating that big change only happens when diversity gets to a certain scale. This is a numbers game.

That's why listening to Noakes is so dispiriting. She speaks to the 'only woman in the room syndrome' which dominates so many of our boardrooms, where the female directors seem to quite like being the queen bees and don't want other women around.

Oddly enough, men don't seem to mind having these personalities around them either, perhaps because they act like men. This is partly what's wrong with the present culture; all too often, the male relationships on the board have a touch of the homoerotic about them. And there's a tribal element to it all, too - a deep need in the male psyche to train younger colleagues in their own image.

There are a lot of senior women who secretly believe in fixed quotas, but who fear if they say so publicly, they risk being seen as overly radical. If Mr Cameron is so persuaded that having more women on boards is for the economic good, then he should waste no time - just take the plunge and set a date for fixed quotas.

If he doesn't, the EU will do it for him, next March. Moving now could also help Cameron out on the women's vote he's so worried about losing, as I can't think of another single action which could be introduced - cost free - that would show the female population that he is serious about fairness. Nearly half the workforce is female, and half of all graduates are women; yet they are shut out from reaching their potential.

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