Like it or not, we need quotas to put women on company boards – here’s why

I wrote here last week about quotas for women on boards. My point then was that if we really wanted women to be on boards, quotas are the only way to make sure it happens. What I didn’t do was comment on whether or not I think that having women on boards is an urgent enough matter to actually introduce the quotas. So do I?

I do. Listen to Helena Morrissey, the CEO of Newton Investment Management, being interviewed in the WSJ. She says she sometimes “holds back” on speaking when she is in a large group of men because “you do feel – probably wrongly – that when you speak you do so as a woman rather than as one of the 20.” Until last month she was the only female board director at the Investment Management Association. She felt the same there: “At a recent meeting I wasn’t comfortable with a controversial point and I spoke up, but I also had a different view on the next item on the agenda but instead of speaking up, I held back.”

There is a general view that having women on boards is a good thing because they are, as various commentators put it, “less flashy, less brash than men;” because they “take their work more seriously, they ask awkward questions in a non-aggressive way, are good listeners and are more likely to pay more attention to managing and controlling risk;” and because “companies with women on their boards outperform rivals in myriad ways.” That may be all true, but it isn’t much use if the women on those boards don’t actually speak up. That’s why boards need more than one woman.

I’d also say they need more than two – if two women are talking in a room of ten men, the men assume they are gossiping. They are still sidelined, or likely to feel sidelined. So boards need more like three – which I imagine is why Morrissey has set up the 30% Club (which aims to make 30% of board directors women). Morrissey doesn’t want quotas but I can’t for the life of me see how she expects to get to 30% without them. Let’s not forget, as Janet Street Porter points out, that the vast majority of board appointments are filled via personal friendships, with very few going out to formal interview.

Lord Davies’ recent review of the situation found almost no support for quotas. But why should it have? The current situation works for men: “it’s cozy and its crooked.” And most women are nervous of coming out in support of quotas for fear of spending the rest of their working lives being sneered at for being a “token woman.” They shouldn’t be. Why? Because without quotas, 30% just isn’t going to happen. If it was, some of the hundreds of bright articulate women out there who should be on boards already would be. Mary–Ann Seighart puts it like this in The Independent. “Good intentions are all very well but the progress they achieve is slow. No one enjoys quotas: they are the least bad option. You can make them temporary, you can use the threat of them as a spur to action. But you can’t in the end do without them.”