Could boardroom quotas be the answer to UK Plc's woman deficit?

The evidence suggests that companies with a woman at the top have substantially more diverse boards.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 08 Jun 2017

Most of the data about women in senior business positions is going in the right direction. As recently as 2011, 21 FTSE 100 companies had all-male boards. Now the number of top tier board seats held by women now stands at 26.6% according to research published by Deloitte yesterday, up from 23.5% last year. In the FTSE 250 it’s up to 21.1% from 18%.

But that leaves lots of room for improvement, not least because there are still just seven woman CEOs in the top 100 companies (including Imperial Brands' Alison Cooper, pictured), and just three chairwomen. Closing that gap will be a slow and complicated process, requiring changes to recruitment practices, mentoring, company cultures and the way businesses deal with parenthood.

What about boardroom quotas? It’s an ever-present, prickly issue in the gender equality debate. It works in Norway and France, say supporters, so why not here? But understandably, some women say they wouldn’t want to feel like they only got a job because of their gender.

One arresting fact in Deloitte’s research is the apparent impact having a woman at the top can have on a company’s diversity in general. Companies with a female chair or chief exec have on average double the number of woman directors overall.

Obviously that doesn’t prove a definitive cause and effect, but it seems logical that companies with women in the most powerful positions are less likely to be susceptible to anti-woman bias, unconscious or otherwise. One might argue that we should therefore fast-track more women to the boardroom by means of temporary legal quotas, thereby making the gender balance throughout companies more equal.

It’s a compelling idea but it comes with challenges. There are presently only so many women with enough experience to land senior roles. If they’re all diverted to non-executive director positions then that reduces the likelihood of them becoming CEOs in the future. ‘We're creating a dual career route for women, which means that a lot of female talent is lost to the executive stream,’ TalkTalk’s former CEO Dido Harding told MT last year. 'It's almost impossible to cross back again because you're not operational anymore.'

To make business, and society as a whole, more equal we need more women in the most powerful jobs. But the best way of achieving that is for more companies to make a genuine and concerted effort to root out the best women in their workforce and provide them with opportunities to shine.

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