Government may force companies to hire more top women

On International Women's Day, the PM threatens to raise the stakes to ensure greater equality in UK plc...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Companies may soon be ordered to disclose what actions they’re taking (or not) to get more women into the boardroom, the Government said today. What’s more, Prime Minister Gordon Brown hinted that legislative changes may be on the cards if UK companies don’t play ball. Some commentators reckon the recent crash has proved that UK plc needs more women and fewer men in senior management positions (especially in the financial services industry) – but so far there haven’t been any great signs of a cultural shift. Not the Government is exactly providing a shining example in that regard…

According to research commissioned by the Government Equalities Office, for International Women’s Day, 60% of the public agree there are not enough women directors in big business and that it's time to end the era of the ‘old boy network’. And although things do seem to be changing, it’s not happening fast enough. Half of the survey’s respondents believe there will be equal number of men and women directors within the next 20 years, but the reality is a lot worse: it will take at least 60 years at the current rate of progress. At the moment, just one in ten FTSE board directors is female.

Now, says Equalities Minister Harriet Harman, companies should be compelled to disclose what they are doing to improve gender equality in the upper echelons of management (that’s on top of provisions in the Equality Bill that allow employers to give women jobs over men who have the same qualifications). And Brown said today that the Government is willing to get even tougher if big businesses don’t get their act together: ‘If we do not see a dramatic change in the composition of company boards in the future, we will need to consider taking more serious action to ensure companies recruit from the diverse pool of exceptional talent we have in the UK,’ he warned today. That presumably means changing the law.

Imposing legal quotas has worked pretty well in Norway, which now leads the world in gender equality. But to many in the private sector, the idea of being told who to hire by the likes of Harriet Harman won’t go down well. Besides, as the BBC’s Robert Peston points out, Whitehall isn’t exactly doing so well in the equality stakes itself. Notwithstanding the lack of women in the Cabinet (a state of affairs bemoaned by MP Caroline Flint recently), our state-owned banks are hardly awash with female directors: there’s one on a board of eight at Northern Rock, and one in 12 at RBS. So perhaps the PM should get his own house in order first. (Although maybe promoting Harman to top public office is his big contribution to positive discrimination?)

In today's bulletin:

Government may force companies to hire more top women
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