It’s not only in Parliament where diversity is hotly debated

Understandably the question of diversity amongst Parliamentarians gets a lot of attention in political parties, with it being the subject of another conference debate at Sheffield, but it’s by no means the only the area subject to such debate.

Diversity in Britain’s boardrooms may not have moved very far up the political agenda yet, but it is the subject of regular debate in business circles – with the Financial Times and Evening Standard in particular both regularly running pieces from contributors concerned about the topic.

It’s a subject the Evening Standard columnist Chris Blackhurst turned to this week. Here’s what he had to say:

The departure of Helen Weir as executive retail director from Lloyds Banking Group caused a quiz in our office. Could we name any other female executive directors of our major companies?

Before you rush to respond, there will be some. But that’s not the point: asked for a list of blokes we could go on forever; choose women and we’re stymied. And the number will only be tiny…

And news of her going forced me to break the belief of a lifetime and conclude: we need compulsory quotas on boards.

I’ve never agreed with the notion before – having forced numbers of anything is alien, implying as it does preferment that is not due to merit but some other reason.

But I can’t see another way…

It would be wrong to claim there has been a lack of positive noise over the last 20 years. Businessman after businessman (you see, it’s nearly always a man) has come out to declare how they wish to see more females in their boardrooms, how they believe they’re a good thing because they’re more empathetic, less confrontational, blah, blah …

As for the argument this is a licence for the advancement of talentless women, there’s nothing unique in that: talentless men are always making it to the boardroom.

What this should do is compel male-dominated companies to stop paying lip-service to promoting women and start taking them seriously. As much as I disagree with the principle, there’s no alternative but to opt for a quota.

We previously covered others with similar views on The Voice, including:

The BBC reports,

“‘There is a business case, not just an equality case, for better diversity in the boardrooms of UK PLC,’ said Hay Group’s UK managing director, Lesley Wilkin.

“‘Simply put, a diverse leadership team is a more effective leadership team.'”

… A subsequent report in the Financial Times highlights research from Norway on the difference made to boards by having more women on them:

“Because Norway has the highest level of participation of women in the boardroom globally, having introduced a 40 per cent quota in 2008, it makes for a useful gender lab.

“Broadly, the researchers found it was not gender as such that underpinned women’s different perspectives, but rather the varied professional experience and value systems they tended to bring to the boardroom. More women than men in the research sample had higher degrees and non-business backgrounds. They were less likely than men to tolerate ethical lapses such as insider trading.”

Speaking on the topic late last year Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said,

While I’m pleased to see the number of female-free boardrooms continuing to fall, it’s worrying that women – who make up more than 50 per cent of the population – still account for just one-eighth of FTSE 100 directors. Making boards more diverse is not about political correctness – it’s about making sure companies draw senior staff from the widest possible pool of talent, which is good for business, good for staff and good for customers.

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  • But I can’t see another way…

    I’m always dazzled by people’s lack of imagination to think of any solution other than quotas. It’s similar to the free school meals at Oxford scenario: no one seems to register that there is a long process through which individuals progress before reaching the selection for these higher-level positions (Oxford, FTSE 100 board … ) And it’s more likely that there are a multitude of factors that hinder people from certain backgrounds from reaching those positions over a long period of time than an imbalance in the final selection process. Yes, dealing with multiple factors over a long timescale is harder than just slapping a 40% “reserved” sign on a certain section of the job/university sector but it’s also the right thing to do.

  • paul barker 15th Mar '11 - 2:29pm

    The point is that no one is suggesting permanent Quotas, once the Glass Ceilings have been shattered at the top the problems lower down will sort themselves out. Above all, everyones perceptions of what is Normal will have changed.
    I have been getting steadily more Libertarian all my life but I just cannot see the point of principle involved in temporary Quotas of the No more than 60% of one gender sort.
    Its instructive to look at the struggles in the C of E. All those “Deep” spiritual/philosophical arguments seem to me like cover for a Fear of Women.

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