Jenny Willott MP writes… Historic milestone for women on company boards

Canary Wharf photo by Jim NixOn Thursday, 26th June, 2014, I was delighted to hear the news that the mining and commodities trader Glencore Xstrata had appointed Patrice Merrin, a Canadian former mining executive, as an independent non-executive director.

This decision means there are no longer any all-male boards amongst the UK’s top companies. In 2011, 21 of the FTSE100 companies had no women on their boards, and now there are none. This is an important step forward and one which Liberal Democrats can be proud of helping to make happen.

Since 2011 Liberal Democrat Ministers across Government have worked tirelessly to promote equality in the work place: we have introduced a new system of flexible parental leave, extended free childcare and free school meals, blocked plans to undermine workers’ rights and engaged closely with business groups to improve workplace equality on issues relating to recruitment, retention, promotion and pay.

The voluntary government scheme called ‘Think, Act, Report’ is a key part of our attempts to improve employer transparency on pay and wider workplace issues. It currently has over 135 companies signed up, covering over 2 million employees. In addition, the number of women in work has risen to an historic high under the Coalition Government, with half a million more women now in work than in May 2010.

It is therefore imperative that the management of companies reflect the diversity of their workforce and the wider population. The decision by Glencore represents the huge progress that has been made in the last few years; progress that simply wouldn’t have been made without Liberal Democrats in Government.

However, despite this historic milestone, there is still more to do. We have set a target of at least half of all Government appointments to public bodies to be women by 2015 and we also want to see at least a quarter of FTSE100 board members be women by next year. We currently have about 22%, up from 12.5% in 2011.

This is not about quotas or special treatment but about creating a better environment for businesses and employees. Having women at the top of organisations is not only fair but it makes good business sense. The Liberal Democrats have made a real difference in promoting equality in the work place and with Vince Cable, me and Jo Swinson really piling on the pressure, we want to see companies embracing diversity to the benefit of their bottom line and to the benefit of all those working in companies from bottom to top.

* Jenny Willott was Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills from December 2013 until June 2014 covering Jo Swinson’s maternity leave. Jo Swinson has now returned.

Photo of Canary Wharf by Jim Nix/Nomadic Pursuits

* Jenny Willott was the Lib Dem MP for Cardiff Central and chaired the working group on working age social security policy in 2016.

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35 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '14 - 9:18am

    Thanks for writing to us. However, the article didn’t sit well in my stomach. I don’t want to get into an argument about it, so I’ll just try to state my reasons why and hopefully not get into a big debate.

    I think it comes down to thinking diversity matters, but it is much more than about gender. It is more than about race and gender (what I call diversity for the cameras). It is also more than race, class, sexuality and gender. It includes skill diversity – as well as ability to do the main job, what other skills do they have? Are they good at maths? Can they speak a foreign language that we need? Organisations need a diverse set of skills.

    I also think a target for 50% of women in government appointments by 2015 is too high. We shouldn’t pretend that as many women as men want full time work. I think gender equality can improve, but we need to have patience, otherwise we’ll promote people who aren’t the best fitted for the organisation. The most important thing is women feeling that they are free to do what they want, whatever that may be.

    Regards

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '14 - 9:22am

    The more that women are able to use their talents in top positions, the more self reinforcing the situation will become.

    It seems that business leaders are recognising that this is not just about equality, it is good for business. In an article , ‘Companies see benefits of women in senior roles’, I found PepsiCo’s approach enlightened.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '14 - 9:31am

    Eddie,
    I agree that the important thing is for women to do what they want. I have always believed that a woman’s place is where she wants it to be. I have always felt the same about a man’s place.

    Have a good day.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '14 - 9:35am

    Thanks Jayne. I was thinking a few moments ago “why should men stay in the office?”. There are parallels.

  • Charles Rothwell 6th Jul '14 - 11:36am

    I agree with Jayne that, apart from issues of social equality, there seems to be growing evidence that having more women in the most senior company managerial positions also makes excellent business sense as well as due to the skills and qualities they can bring to the demands of such posts: http://www.catalyst.org/media/companies-more-women-board-directors-experience-higher-financial-performance-according-latest. I see no reason at all either why women cannot combine having successful careers with being successful mothers IF the structures are in place to support them in doing this (e.g. well over 80% of women with child over the age of 1 in Sweden and Denmark are back in full-time work as opposed to just over 70% in the UK due to comprehensive and extremely high quality childcare arrangements in place in those countries (which I personally would infinitely prefer to see as role model nations for the UK to be following rather than racing at break neck speed to become the 51st state of the Union or, lord help us, if the Kippers/’eurosceptics’ have their way and start to transform us into some kind of European Singapore or Taiwan. Talking of Kippers, their support among women remains consistently weak according to voting analyses (which is why they need constantly to parade women like the one who stood in Eastleigh and the one who is now some kind of spokesperson for them after deciding the time was ripe to jump from the Tories) and the Party has huge potential among such voters, I believe. (The recent Mumsnet position on the idiotic bear pit of PMQs (with braying males on pre-lunch testosterone highs bellowing like black shirts in the Piazza Venezia at each other) would seem also to be a good opening for the Party which stands for coalition government and reasoned debate surely to take a firm stance as well?

  • Tsar Nicholas 6th Jul '14 - 2:54pm

    And helping rich women gain a measure of equality with rich men helps ordinary and poorer people how exactly?

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '14 - 3:30pm

    Tsar Nicholas,
    Why do you assume that the measures that Jenny has mentioned will only benefit rich women?

  • Tsar Nicholas 6th Jul '14 - 3:58pm

    @ Jayne Mansfield

    “Why do you assume that the measures that Jenny has mentioned will only benefit rich women?”

    Because I don’t know of anyone on minimum wage or slightly higher who is on the board of a FTSE-100 company, although I am open to enlightenment.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '14 - 5:09pm

    Tsar Nicholas,
    Are you suggesting that women on the minimum wage cannot benefit from flexible parental leave, extended free childcare, workers rights, work to improve, recruitment, retention, promotion and pay.

    I don’t know any women at all who are on the FTSE 100 whether on the minimum wage or otherwise. What I do know is that there are plenty of women who would like to be, and the measures that Jenny mentions are a step in the right direction. Or do you think that women languishing on the minimum wage don’t have ambitions or resent the social barriers that often keep them there? If it is what they wish for themselves but it is not a realistic prospect, do you not think that they might want to want to live in a society where being on the board of a FTSE 100 is a prospect more readily achievable for their daughters if that is what their daughters want?

    The more that women achieve, in terms of using their talents in powerful positions, the more role models there will be and the more normative the situation will become. Well- thats my hope!

  • Tsar Nicholas 6th Jul '14 - 5:18pm

    @ Jayne Mansfield

    I’m sorry but the bulk of the article is about the higher end of the socio-economic scale.

    Most people are worse off now than they were a decade ago and the cause is rooted in the neo-liberal economic policy which all governments have followed.

    Every conceivable form of inequality is being addressed by the Lib Dems and the rest of the political elite except that of social class, and the reason for that failure is that if it were seriously addressed then the privileges few per cent, male or female, would have to make sacrifices.

    Raise the many and you will raise women too.

  • Tsar Nicholas 6th Jul '14 - 5:19pm

    Sorry should read ‘privileged’ not ‘privileges’

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '14 - 5:30pm

    I think the target for 50% of women in government appointments by 2015 is essential, because women represent half the electorate and half the population. There’ll be plenty of men and women qualified for those jobs, so it’s not as if ensuring a gender balance is going to reduce the effectiveness of government.

    My experience as a consultant in the construction sector is that a gender-balanced meetings and decision-making can be as effective as male-dominated ones, sometimes more so, and often produces a less stressful team and social atmosphere – something that is vital in any problem-solving context such as government.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '14 - 5:59pm

    So Richard, if you want to play silly beggars, what do you think we should do about this example:

    A few months ago I was out with four women. I suggested one set up a business. She said it wasn’t a good idea because you don’t get maternity leave. two of her friends agreed with her and the other one sat there silent.

    The moral of the story is the most important thing is women doing what they want to do. You can’t say “women make up 50% so they must be in all the same places as men”.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '14 - 6:11pm

    In fact, Richard, whatever you say on this thread, I’m not replying to it. I have a short tolerance level when it comes to this subject and I’m not getting into pointless debates.

    Regards

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '14 - 8:24pm

    Tsar Nicholas,
    My mother was born in 1903 and the only opportunity open to her was domestic service, or ‘skivvying’ as she put it. The life chances of my father were similarly restricted. It gives me no pleasure to see how social mobility has stalled for both men and women.

    To overcome this, it seems to me that the half of the population that I belong to, must have the opportunity to become fully engaged in decision making at the highest levels. By chipping away at the barriers that prevent this, more women will be in a better position to imagine political alternatives to neoliberalism and argue for a social and economic model that benefits the many, rather than the few.

    I don’t think we differ in our desired end goal.

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '14 - 10:29pm

    @Eddie Sammon
    Your experience illustrates my point. Starting a business has issues that, as a man, you did not appreciate. Together with the four women, a decision was reached that was more practical than the one you would have made alone.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '14 - 11:06pm

    Richard, I suspect you are deliberately trying to wind me up, because no where did I say what you just came out with. There was no group decision, it was about one woman’s individual opinion and what her friends thought of it.

    I had calmed down, but stop it Richard. Stop trying to wind me up.

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '14 - 11:19pm

    @Eddie Sammon
    Well at least the women alerted you to the fact that starting a business has issues that you had not previously appreciated. Now, when the question arises again, you will be better able to contribute to a more informed decision.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '14 - 11:24pm

    Hi Richard. I agree a discussion with different sexes in it was good. However, the fact remained that they had preferences that were different to most men’s.

    Only anecdotal, but it gets the point across.

    Best wishes

  • Richard Dean 6th Jul '14 - 11:26pm

    @Eddie Sammon
    Yes, the fact that they had opinions that were different to most men’s is good illustration of precisely why the group approach to decision-making can be valuable, and better than a men-only process.

  • I am not sure why you two are arguing about “targets for appointment to Government bodies” Eddie and Richard, and getting worked up about it. Personally, I don’t understand exactly what jenny means by this. At present, as I understand it, about 70% of public employees are women. Does she mean Board Members of Quangoes? If so, which ones? Does she include say, School Governors, which would be dominated by women? I am also unsure how jenny can claim that it is the Lib Dems’ achievement that more board members on FTSE 100 companies are women in the last 3 years.

    While I agree with Jayne Mansfield that it is good to give all women and men opportunities to be “where they want to be”, my fear would be that Jenny’s claim to be along with Jo “piling on the pressure” is actually piling the pressure on women to take too much low paid work because of benefit cuts and sanctions. I fear all are being pressured by a more or less nonsensical tabloid driven agenda for all to be “in work”. Recent studies have found these people still poorly off. Need I mention the dreaded phrase Alarm Clock Britain? This phrase will be found written on Nick Clegg’s heart, in the same way as Calais was supposed to be on Queen Mary’s, and Cones Hotline will no doubt be on John Major’s!

  • Richard Dean 7th Jul '14 - 12:17am

    @Tim13
    Let’s start here: I would like to see a gender-balance in the cabinet, and in other ministerial and under-secretary appointments. https://www.gov.uk/government/ministers

    At present there are 3 women and 19 men who are cabinet ministers, and there are 2 women and 10 mean who also attend cabinet. However, there are plenty of other MPs and others who could fill these posts as effectively, including plenty of women. Getting a gender balance would be possible and beneficial.

    I think there are about 70 or 80 other ministerial and related appointments. There are probably enough available and qualified women MPs and women members of the HOL to get a gender balance here too.

  • David Evershed 7th Jul '14 - 1:40am

    Some Directors may be appointed initially but subsequently ahve to be elected to the Board by the shareholders who own the business.

    Forcing companies to appoint Directors by sex, age or ethnic group would be equivalent to doing the same for MPs and not democratic.

    As more women rise through the business ranks and prove their worth, we can expect more of them to be elected to Boards of Directors.

    Women who set up succesful companies and as a result own a big proportion of the shares, can of course elect themselves as Directors. So the more women who set up such companies, the more companies will have women directors.

  • Richard, I agree with you – of course it would be beneficial to have more women in the Cabinet. Unfortunately the Lib Dems have very few women MPs, so it would either mean more Tories or more from the House of Lords. I don’t think it gives a good message that we, the Lib Dems, are using powers of patronage that we as a party are trying to abolish, to force nominees into the Cabinet. In any case, Jenny was not talking about members of Cabinet or Ministers from what I can see. I would welcome Jenny clarifying who she was talking about.

    David E – I don’t think anyone was talking of forcing companies to elect / appoint anyone.

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '14 - 11:22am

    @Richard Dean,
    David Cameron pledged that 1/3 of his cabinet would be women in his first term of office. There is one year to go and there are some excellent tory women to choose from . In my opinion, Theresa May isn’t one of them.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jul '14 - 11:30am

    Tim, I’m arguing about it because I care about public services and justice and I don’t want places stuffed with women with insufficient care for ability to do the job.

    I think I could change my mindset to a much more relaxed one, and believe me it is no fun getting angry all the time, but I worry if I do this then injustice will just increase. I try to take the middle way.

    Regards

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '14 - 11:46am

    @ Tim13,
    We are told that the your party has had some influence over tory policy. Maybe they could give David Cameron a nudge and remind him of his pledge that 1/3rd of the cabinet would be women in his first term, or is it an issue of low importance?

  • Eddie, I hope we all agree that we should do our best to appoint good people into all jobs. As someone who has at least 30 years experience in recruitment at all sorts of levels, I try to look for those who will do a job well. However, it is always good to try to ensure those not well-represented in particular types of jobs are given a fair chance, whether that is by gender, ethnic group, educational background etc. Like you, I am passionate about good public service, and have worked in the public service here and overseas for many years.

  • Jayne, I am not one who claims the Lib Dems have any great influence over Tory policy! However, it would be good to be heard urging Cameron to do what you say. Charges of hypocrisy would no doubt be thrown back, but for reasons I pointed out above, not easy currently to do a lot about it in the Lib Dems. That said, I see no reason why, for instance, Lynne Featherstone should not make a good Cabinet member.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jul '14 - 11:55am

    Thanks Tim. I sometimes need to remind myself not to construct made up enemies in my head and get angry about them. I know everyone considers ability to do the job. Continuous improvement.

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '14 - 12:13pm

    @ Eddie Sammon,
    I have yet to meet a woman who wants places stuffed women with insufficient care for inability for the job. I suggest you look around you and see the result when that is the case with men.

    Perhaps you would get less churned up if you recognised that wanting a society that isn’t structured in such a way that half the population cannot compete fairly for positions of power, is a society that is losing out. No one is ranting about the evils of men. The argument is about a social structure and attitudes, (often supported by women and challenged by men) which some of us feel are working against the interests of women and how best to overcome them.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jul '14 - 12:49pm

    Hi Jayne, I still think there is insufficient care for ability to do the job. All things considered, I deem the scrutiny to be insufficient and the weight placed on gender too high.

    I’ll try to remind myself that a lot of scrutiny is going into the candidates, that is the best I can do.

    Regards

  • I think many are missing just how successful the voluntary scheme “Think, Act, Report” launched in September 2011, that Jenny is celebrating:
    FTSE100 companies with Women board members: Up from 79% to 100%
    FTSE100 proportion of women board members: Up from 12.5% to 22%
    It is almost that companies have sensed change is in the air and are acting accordingly.

    If the momentum can be maintained we could be looking at FTSE100 boards being largely 50:50 by circa 2020. So the questions are really whether the ball is now rolling, what obstacles do we foresee and what more is needed to keep it on track. What I suggest is clear is that a voluntary scheme seems to be delivering change (only time ill tell if it is real and permanent) at a much lower cost – in terms of money and regulatory overhead and social cohesion (the carrot is always better than the stick), than that would be incurred by government decree.

    As for the comment that this “is about the higher end of the socio-economic scale”, so what? this is natural! In many sectors the only reason why the less well off now benefit is because of the early movers and adopters who paid a premium, who in turn enabled the “middle classes” who in turn enabled the creation of mass markets… Yes today’s low end won’t get much, but for the children in preschool/primary/junior their horizons need to be adjusted.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jul '14 - 9:35pm

    Good point Roland. I am all in favour of market intervention (to a degree).

  • I know this is an ‘old’ article but in view of the recent public sector strike and it bringing senior Union personnel back into the spotlight, I can’t help but notice just how quiet everyone is on the role of women in the trade union movement and the conspicuous absence of women among the Union leaders…

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