Quotas won’t fool voters

’Golden skirt’ board quotas are not a panacea for business gender inequalities

Anne Pritam
Anne Pritam

So, David Cameron spends a few days in Stockholm and the next thing we know he is telling us the concept of a quota for women on boards is “very interesting”. Was this just Cameron being polite in a country where ­quotas have put women in 25 per cent of board positions in big business? Or could it be a sledgehammer-subtle move to impress women voters?

Either way, our leader hedged his bets by saying that he would prefer to try “everything short” of a quota and was generally against “positive ­discrimination in law”. This is reassuring. Having commissioned Lord Davies to report on ways to raise the number of women at the top, the Government would do well to note his finding that quotas are not the way forward.

Of course, Cameron can afford to be just a little smug when discussing this topic with the bigwigs of the UK economy. Whereas FTSE100 boards average roughly 15 per cent female membership, the Cabinet runs at just less than 23 per cent.

But there is more at stake here than a few soundbites and the chance for Daily Mail readers to ponder whether ’golden skirt’ quotas, as the paper so charmingly terms them, will save our economy. The power for businesses to take positive action in recruitment and promotion is already there in the Equality Act 2010 (passed under the last government). It is a provision that has been little used by private sector businesses. This is understandable, given that it is optional and using the power can prompt a complaint of discrimination by an unsuccessful applicant who may not accept the fact matrix against which the decision was made.

Clearly, a boardroom quota cannot simply allow a woman’s application to always succeed against a man’s. The devil would be in the detail in any reform: for example, how to phrase the ’tie-breaker’ provision that says where candidates are equal the quota rule will trump the man and the woman will be appointed.

There is also the issue to which Cameron and his team seem endearingly (excuse the pun) oblivious: that a quota system might just be, and/ or be perceived to be, patronising ­towards women. A glass ceiling ­probably does exist, but frankly the anecdotal evidence is that most successful women would not want to be in the invidious position of suspecting they were a token appointment.

How much weight would female input be given in any debate if a woman could not prove she was at the table on merit? According to the Professional Boards Forum’s BoardWatch, there are still 11 all-male boards in the FTSE100. But flip that statistic and 89 FTSE100 boards have female members, and we have to hope they got there on merit.

Finally, introducing quotas begs another question. Just as research indicates that gender balance in the boardroom is good for business, so is wider diversity. So why no quotas for non-whites, the disabled, LGBT candidates etc? If we want boards to look more like the UK those groups should be at the table. Female quotas would make one characteristic – being a woman – better protected than the others. Chairmen and chief executives should not have to apply priorities when making appointments.