Lord Davies report on women in business: Your reactions

Former trade minister Lord Davies of Abersoch was charged with conducting a review into the barriers preventing women from progressing up to board level by the government in August last year. At present, just 12.5% of UK board positions are held by women.

Female directors had feared the introduction of "patronising" board quotas. In the end, Lord Davies didn't go this far. He resisted the urge to push for mandatory quotas - although that could change if voluntary measures to boost female board representation fail.

Instead, Davies said FTSE 100 firms should aim for at least 25% female representation on their boards by 2015. Meanwhile, FTSE 350 companies were urged to set their own targets for the proportion of women they aim to have on their boards in 2013 and 2015.

Quoted companies should be required to disclose each year exactly how many women they have in senior positions - and in the organisations as a whole - and to indicate what steps they are taking to achieve better gender balance at senior levels.

So what has the reaction been to the proposals, and will they lead to a greater representation of women on UK boards?

Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management and a founder of the 30% Club, thinks so.

"I believe he has struck the right balance by calling for decisive and measurable action without resorting to a quota," she says.

Morrisey adds that quotas could actually marginalise women even further; women should feel that they have earned their right to sit on the board, rather than being there as a tokenistic gesture to make up the numbers.

"A quota at the board level might be a 'quick fix' but would create only the illusion of change. A quota actually undermines the principle of equality, is condescending and makes no economic sense. We are much more likely to achieve gender equality in the boardroom if we allow businesses to diversify their boards voluntarily and organically."

Morrisey adds that the more women join boards, the more they can demonstrate that they can add real value to an organisation - not just in terms of bringing a new perspective to the table, but also in terms of boosting a company's bottom line.

"This is backed up by extensive research, including a report from Cranfield University which showed that companies with women leaders tended to have a higher return on equity," she says.

"We know that these recommendations aren't going to change the make-up of boardrooms overnight, but they represent a huge step towards equality for all women."

Karen Gill MBE, of everywoman, agreed that enforced targets aren't an effective way to bring about change - instead, organisations should focus on the business case for diversity.

"There is just too much resistance [to quotas] from both men and women, and our belief is that coercion is never the best agent for change," she says.

"It needs to be done on a company level and for companies themselves to understand that to have a more balanced and diverse workforce, up and down their organisations is in their best interest, both commercially and socially. Our biggest fear is that if we don't get our act together and utilise the talents of our entire workforce we will become globally uncompetitive."

However, Dawn Nicholson, HR consulting partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), likened the proposals to "painting over a damp wall", arguing that they won't tackle one of the major issues - why women aren't progressing to senior levels.

"Lord Davies' report has put gender equality back on the business agenda. But it is unlikely that these proposals, even if fully implemented, will significantly reduce the inequality of opportunity that they seek to address," she argues.

"The risk is that these targets, which are highly aspirational, will simply encourage employers to hire in senior women without dealing with the far more complex issue of why women are failing to progress within their organisations in the first place."

Nicholson gave the legal profession as an example - despite outnumbering men at newly qualified level, making up 52.4% of new lawyers, just 30% of non-equity partners are female - and just 14% of full equity partners.

"This failure [to progress] may be for a variety of reasons, from cultural barriers to personal choice, and is by no means confined to law firms. However, until organisations get to grips with the points in the employee life cycle the inequalities begin to arise, and start addressing the underlying causes, it is difficult to see what will change."

Chris Parke, CEO, Talking Talent, agreed that companies need to ask themselves why women are so under-represented at senior levels.

"Clearly organisations aren't casting the net widely enough to recruit female talent; they are failing to promote women or women are opting not to pursue a board level career perhaps because companies are failing to make boardrooms attractive places to work.

"Rather than sit and wait for things to improve or for quotas to be imposed, companies need to take action to progress women in business.

"This means taking a harsh look at why there aren't a greater number of women on their board, scrutinising gender pay to ensure equality, canvassing views from the men and women in the business on these issues and analysing their retention records to see if improvement could be made in their retention of senior women."

 

Karen Gill MBE, everywoman
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