Twice as many women by 2015, says Davies

Lord Davies has sensibly stopped short of calling for mandatory quotas. But if we don't get to 25% by 2015, that might change...

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
Lord Davies’ long-awaited report on boosting the number of women in the boardrooms of UK plc is finally out, and the businesses seem to be breathing a sigh of relief. Davies didn't, as some hoped, recommend mandatory quotas for the number of women businesses should have on their board: instead, he's suggesting that businesses should be allowed to set their own targets and then be forced to explain why if they fall short. However, he still thinks a 'radical change’ is required - and if this voluntary approach doesn't up the proportion to 25% by 2015, the quota idea may be back on the agenda...

Davies wants chairmen to announce the targets that they’ve set in the next six months, based on criteria like the number of women in their industry, and so on - an eminently more sensible approach than trying to apply an across-the-board figure that would be much easier for some than others. And by doing this publicly, the theory goes, firms will be under pressure to comply - or explain why not. He also made some more specific recommendations to boost the number of women at the top table, like ‘periodically’ advertising non-executive board positions to encourage more diversity in applications. He also wants headhunting firms should draw up a voluntary code to address diversity ‘in relation to board level appointments to FTSE 350 companies’. And he made a (slightly woolly) call for investors to ‘pay close attention to the recommendations from the report when considering re-appointments to a company board’, i.e. to make sure they're not just perpetuating the status quo.

So will the report have the desired effect? Some campaigners have already swiftly condemned it as a ‘cop-out’, arguing that only quotas will force companies to take on women at the top. They point to the oft-cited statistics from Norway, where the number of boardroom seats occupied by women soared from 6.8% to 44.2% in the five years after the introduction of quotas in 2003. The figures over here certainly pale in comparison: according to research from the Cranfield School of Management, 18 FTSE 100 companies and nearly half of FTSE 250 companies still don’t have any woman on their board at all. Currently, women occupy about 12.2% of directorships, so we're talking about a doubling of the current level.

Female executives seem satisfied enough with the ideas set out in the report. The worry from some camps was that we’d end up with a set of patronising quotas that would encourage tokenism, and create more red tape. Helen Weir, the head of retail banking at Lloyds Banking Group, told the Telegraph that quotas would be ‘unfortunate’... I would hate to feel I’d been hired to a board simply because of my gender, not on merit,’ she said. And among businesses, there’s a wide acceptable that there would be benefits to having women on board – both in terms of equality, and having a more diverse leadership.

Davies says the inquiry panel will continue to meet every six months to make sure everything’s on track. But this is a good start: his approach has at least recognised that change will be more effective if it comes from within companies, rather than being forced on them from outside.

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