Insights from the UK and beyond
The boards of British big business are a closed shop. Though women make up 46 percent of the UK’s economically active population — and do as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts throughout school, higher education, and into middle management, just 12.5 percent of FTSE 100 boards are made up of women.
Today, a government-commissioned review panel (led by a man, former trade minister Mervyn Davies) published its recommendations for tackling the problem. Central to the proposals is the recommendation that FTSE 100 companies aim to have women make up 25 percent of their boards by 2015. It eschewed recommending company quotas enforced by government legislation, as has happened in countries like Norway, saying that the majority of women it surveyed did not favour them. Business groups also object to quotas, arguing they risk a situation where the best person for the job might not get it. This is despite the fact, as the authors of Davies report argued, that there are plenty of well-qualified women for these positions who are simply overlooked because of an opaque, old-boys’ network attitude to recruitment.
Regardless of whether or not you support quotas, the issue of diversity on boards and in management structures is clearly one that needs more radical action at all levels than that encompassed by this report. It’s true that the focus of the review was very specific. As one of the report’s authors said to me at today’s briefing: “You can’t boil the ocean”. Agreed. Organisations won’t achieve anything by trying to do everything but those that want reform also need to be the change they want to see.
So it was surprising to see the Davies review itself adopt some of the practices that help reinforce the sense that key professions — business, but also the media, judiciary and politics — are an exclusive club. Davies and his fellow panellists talked about the importance of role modelling, yet the first two speakers at today’s briefing were both men: Davies himself and Andrew Moss, Chief Executive of Aviva – the insurance group. Aviva actually boasts higher than average female board representation. Nevertheless, the visuals looked odd.
The previous UK government loved reviews and inquiries – and the new one is little different. From corporate governance, to pensions, to the structure of banks, those in Westminster relish a report, preferably one packed full of important-sounding recommendations but which compel no one to do anything. That’s because, very often, the problem being tackled is not one that can be easily or neatly solved with legislation or a slap on the wrist.
The government’s review into female representation on the boards of big business is a case in point. The panel, led by former trade minister Mervyn Davies, met on Monday to discuss final recommendations for increasing the number of female board directors, with quotas mooted as one option. Its report is due out soon. But quotas are highly unlikely – for the simple reason that business does not like them.
When I interviewed David Cameron earlier this year after an event at Thomson Reuters in which he, George Osborne and Ken Clarke delivered their views on the economy under a “Vote For Change” banner, I suggested that watching three white, middle-aged men talking about what was good for Britain didn’t feel much like change to me. Cameron jokingly replied that Clarke, 69, would be flattered to be described as middle-aged.
The Conservative leader then shifted in his seat, sat up straight and talked seriously about all the hard work his party was doing to field more female and ethnic minority candidates. His new Deputy Prime Minister, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, talks repeatedly of a “new politics” and how this time politicians will do things differently.
Fewer women than last year are reaching the top in their chosen professions, an annual survey has found.
Progress on equality is moving at a snail’s pace, the Equality and Human Rights Commission says, blamingÂ Britain’s long-hours culture and inflexible working pactices.
The death of Sergeant Sarah Bryant, the first female British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, has reignited the long-running debate over women’s role in modern warfare.