A very interesting comment piece appeared in The Telegraph on Wednesday of this week, and I thoroughly recommend that you read it. Entitled ‘Quotas won’t resolve the battle of the sexes’, it was written jointly by Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, Conservative MPs for, respectively, Esher and Walton, and Witham, and it challenged the recommendations of Lord Davies’ Report on Women on Boards, published last February. In particular, the authors of the piece questioned the wisdom of mandatory quotas of women on UK boards, arguing that they are a ‘short-term sticking plaster; not a long-term solution’.
Of course, Lord Davies himself did not advocate fixed, mandatory quotas; what he did say, however, was that boards should set themselves the target of 25% of women in the boardroom by 2015, and this month of September marks the date by which he expected boards to comply in this respect. A target without a process is mere window-dressing, though, and the Telegraph comment piece is quite right to deplore the setting of quotas which result in women being on the board just because they are women, and not because they are the best candidate. To be fair to Lord Davies, however, this is clear in his recommendations; and boards have had six months in which to work out how they are going to bring more women on to their boards in a way which is meaningful and both recognises and rewards female talent, ensuring that it is nurtured and developed in the pipeline leading up to board level. A more diverse board, after all, has been proven to be a more competitive one.
Where the problem will lie is if boards either fail to set targets, or set the kind of superficial target which fails to work out how to attract, develop and retain outstanding women directors. Neither of these should happen if boards set their minds to the task at hand – how can they create an environment which allows women to grow and thrive in their business context? Part of the answer lies in the suggestions listed by Raab and Patel – more family-friendly policies, for instance, which will retain women at a time of their lives where they seek flexibility. Equally important, though, is the changing of attitudes towards women, recognising the weight of social history and compensating for it – questioning the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality of some firms, and developing mentoring and support structures for women who have never had access to these in the past.
Quotas shouldn’t be necessary, and with luck, hope and a fair wind they will disappear entirely as a concept, as we witness a real and practical determination on the part of boards to prepare for stronger governance reflecting the gender diversity of their clients and of society. Until this happens, however, the threat of quotas is a sharp reality check, the power and usefulness of which should not be underestimated.