Merryn's Blog

If we want more women on company boards, then quotas are the only answer

Everyone seems to agree that there should be more women on the boards of top companies, but few are willing to accept quotas to make it happen. However, that is the only realistic way of breaking the glass ceiling.

Should there be quotas for women on UK boards? Not many people seem to think so. Everyone accepts, or at least pretends they accept, that it is a bit nuts that there are so very few women at the top of business here. Look at the FTSE 100 and you will see that a mere 12% of directors are women. Cut out the non-executives (NEDs) and that number comes down to 5.5%.

But despite this very obvious problem, the general view is that, while the problem is mostly the fault of women (they take too many career breaks to make it to the top), the men can still probably sort it out if left alone to get on with it.

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Lord Davies is soon to release his report to the government on the matter, and all the indications are that he is to suggest UK companies in the FTSE 350 get two years to increase the number of women on their boards, probably to 20% or so. He is then expected to suggest that the proportion should hit 25% by 2015. If this doesn't look like it will happen, then David Cameron is apparently going to threaten to bring in quotas at some vague point in the future.

It all seems a bit pointless to me. If you want something like this to change (and this blog is not a comment on whether you should want more women on boards or not) you have to actually do something to make it happen. Talk and vague threats just aren't enough.

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Consider the reasons why so few women are on boards at the moment. It might be that they just can't put in the hours to get to a high-enough level in the business world to be a director and take care of their families at the same time. Or it might be that they just can't face putting in the hours for the simple reason that they think it might not get them anywhere. 73% of women questioned for a recent Institute of Leadership and Management survey agreed that the glass ceiling still exists. Only 38% of men did.

It might even be that they don't like the lack of flexibility that comes with board meetings: having dates set in your diary 18 months in advance (long before you know the dates of half-term and the like) can be a bore. Otherwise, it might be because the executive world really is an old boys' club, one in which men of a certain age trying to think of people to ask on to their board can only think of other men.

It's hard to know exactly which one of these it is, but it is also hard to see how the combination will change in a hurry.

It might change over time younger men don't really have old boys' clubs in the same way as those over 50 do, and younger women are more used to using technology to make themselves visible than older women are. But change enough to double the number of female directors in two years? Not a hope.

So if the general consensus really is that we should have more women on boards, and quickly, coercion is surely the only answer. And that means quotas.

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