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A breakfast meeting on how to boost the number of women directors of top companies yesterday debated whether it is time to push for quotas.
A leading researcher on diversity policies says quotas may be the best way to jolt corporates out of their “paralysis” over promoting women onto boards, a breakfast meeting at Cass Business School heard yesterday.
Dr Louise Ashley, a research fellow from the Cass Business School, told the meeting organised by Inclusive Employers, that she was “tentatively in favour of quotas”. She said the UK had had years of diversity and inclusion policies, but change was very slow. “Often it seems as if it is happening one woman at a time,” she said, adding that even for those women who had been promoted there had been a relatively limited impact on work patterns and the kind of women who was getting to the top.
She believes part of the reason is that the business case for diversity is not clear to everyone and is not sufficient to drive forward fundamental reasons to push for diversity.
“There’s a lot of talk about the idea that more diversity at the top will promote greater creativity and even have a civilising effect,” she said, “but maybe that won’t happen. What happens if boards with more women on them don’t make improvements? We don’t have to make those arguments for men.”
Because so few companies were very progressive in promoting more women to their boards, there was no real incentive to change the status quo. “We may need something dramatic to break through all of this,” she said. “Many CEOs say they think diversity is important, but they don’t think it is urgent. Most change is motivated by a visible crisis and companies are not experiencing lack of diversity in crisis proportions. If we are not going to see change any time soon then quotas might be the only solution, even if it come with temporary costs, because it will normalise women in leadership positions.”
The meeting was held as the European Commission deadline for consultation over quotas draws to a close. May 28th is the final deadline for submissions.
Jane Christopherson, a managing partner at headhunters the Curzon Partnership, said Norway’s experience of introducing quotas had not been wholly positive. There were claims that the size of boards in some companies had been reduced so that quotas could be reached. This was not necessarily a good thing for the running of organisations. CEOs, who previously used their boards as their mentors, were having to mentor some women board members who had been fast tracked up to board level. Some women were also assuming they would get board roles and were not fighting as hard to get promoted.
She said UK companies had an appetite for change and many were involved in meetings to discuss how to make this happen.
Code of practice
Search firms have signed up to a code of conduct whereby they agree to provide a long list of candidates which is equally representative of men and women. It made the work harder, said Christopherson, but more interesting. However, even though they presented more diverse lists to companies, the women on those lists still tended not to be shortlisted. “A lot of what makes the women different is the way they want to work and that’s when the brakes come on from employers’ viewpoint,” she said. A cultural change was needed, she added, to convince employers that they get more back from flexible workers.
Psychologist Dr Farhad Dalal, author of Thought Paralysis: the Virtues of Discrimination, said companies often only paid lip service to diversity. He felt some elements of the diversity movement had not done themselves any favours by suggesting “diverse” workers – a byword for the marginalised – were somehow better than other workers. “That kind of thinking is the same kind of racialised thinking that says black people are all the same,” he said, adding that he felt things were going backwards in terms of equality.
Lynne Berry, Vice Chair of the new Waterways Charity, said there had been progress since she was on the Equal Opportunities Commission. The hourly gender pay gap had lessened, for instance. However, what had failed was attempts to boost the number of women on boards and the campaign for compulsory reporting of pay rates. “I think that would have made a difference,” she said.
She is involved in a programme at Cass Business School to prepare women board members of the bigger voluntary organisations for promotion to corporate boards. The main areas they needed experience in to get them ready included corporate finances and shareholder values, she said. Once they had this knowledge, they could provide a source of board ready women for corporates. She said she was very optimistic that now is “a moment of change” and thinks it is important to make the business case for diversity. “Just being right doesn’t change things,” she said.