Vince Cable “considers all female shortlists for city firms.” Really?

Yesterday’s Guardian ran a story which said that Vince Cable was considering all female shortlists for the boards of FTSE companies.

That headline was  at this stage over-egging that particular pudding. All he is doing is asking the Equality and Human Rights Commission to advise whether such a move would be legal.

That was in fact the eighth of ten recommendations in a report by Charlotte Sweeney who has worked has head of diversity for top banks, which reviewed the effectiveness of the Government’s voluntary code for city headhunters. It’s worth having a look at the whole report which is available here.

Her rationale was simply to end confusion:

Throughout the interviews there were a number of discussions regarding the 30% long list and ‘women only shortlists’. There have been differing legal opinions as to the ability to request ‘women only shortlists’ as an appropriate means to redress the balance on boards. This is a confusing minefield for both search firms and corporates, therefore more guidance on the legalities would be helpful. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) should create the appropriate guidance required.

She makes some other very practical suggestions to improve the situation in the short term:

  • Compiling a list of women who have the skills to go on to boards. I like this idea because it means that there is no excuse for head-hunting firms to just go to the usual male suspects.
  • Giving more information on why gender diversity is important
  • Agreement to comply with the voluntary code to be the default option in all search contracts
  • Sharing of hiring data by search companies along with case studies outlining success

So, the truth is that Vince has asked for a ruling on whether all women shortlists are legal, in amongst a series of other important recommendations.  He has said nothing about whether they are a good idea or not.

The question of all women shortlists is a controversial one for liberals. Some feel that discrimination is wrong under any circumstances, even to redress an imbalance and they worry that women appointed by this method would be seen as only being there because of their gender rather than their ability. Others feel that to suggest that the current system selects the best people for the jobs, who happen to be mainly white males, is erroneous in the extreme and that action is needed to change that.

This is one of the areas where Vince’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has made significant progress. When the Coalition took office, the top FTSE boards had just 12% women. It’s now over 20% with a target of 25% for 2015. Let’s hope that the recommendations in the report help that target to be met. Let’s remember, though, that 1 in 4 might be a big difference but it’s far from where we need to be.




* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • ” Others feel that to suggest that the current system selects the best people for the jobs, who happen to be mainly white males, is erroneous in the extreme and that action is needed to change that.”

    If that’s their argument, it’s not very good. It might be the case that the current system doesn’t select the best people for the job, but even if this is true it doesn’t imply that quotas will do anything to improve the situation.

    If the aim is to hire the best possible person for the job, then deliberately setting up the process to exclude candidates from an entire gender (regardless of how talented they may be) is a ridiculous way to go about it.

  • Why does Vince Cable feel the need to meddle in the internal workings of FTSE companies?

    As far as I can tell, nobody is deliberately preventing women for applying for the boardroom posts.

    I have come across several women who complain that they did not get particular jobs because of their gender, ignoring the fact that several male candidates also did not get he job. One of these women wanted to be a Labour party candidate. She is now a candidate in another constituency where she was selected via an all women shortlist.

    My concern is this: Quotas according to gender, ethnicity etc have the risk of promoting somebody above their ability, which is a disaster for the organisation. It is also harmful for the individual too. It is also harmful for their more capable colleague who missed out on promotion, and quite probably will apply to work at a rival firm or organisation. This is not just a gender issue. I know an Inspector in the Metropolitan Police. There is a general feeling of hostility to the over-promotion of officers based on ethnicity.

    Vince Cable risks losing credibility if he follows this path.

  • I thought it was illegal to discriminate on the basis of ethnic origin, skin colour, age and sex. If I’m correct; how could Vince even consider such a thing.

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