Gender quotas won’t be forced on UK boards – for now

14 Feb

UK companies will have two years to increase the proportion of women in their boardrooms, or they could face government-imposed targets in future.

Lord Davies of Abersoch, who has been investigating how the government can help remove obstacles to women reaching the board, has, for now, decided to allow UK companies to set their own diversity targets. However, if there is not a marked improvement in two years, the government may choose to go down the legislative route and set tougher measures.

Lord Davies’ report, which is due out on 24 February, is expected to suggest that reporting on diversity figures should be as standard as corporate social responsibility in a company’s annual report. The percentage of women in FTSE 100 board positions stands at 12.5%, according to the Cranfield University School of Management Female FTSE board report 2010.

The UK isn’t the only nation under pressure to improve the representation of women at the top. European countries, including Norway, Spain and France have already imposed, with some success, mandatory quotas requiring boards to be 40% female.

Germany – where women account for only 2.2% of board members – has been in the spotlight since Deutsche Bank chief executive Josef Ackermann commented last week that having an increased female presence on the board would make meetings “more colourful – and prettier too”.

Whether his comments were taken as ‘old school’ or chauvinistic, they sparked outrage from female leaders in Germany. Minister for consumer affairs Isle Aigner was quoted in Handelsblatt, saying: “Those who want things to be prettier and more colourful should go to a flower meadow or a museum.” And MEP Silvana Kock-Mehrin told the newspaper: “Women in leadership positions don’t see themselves as decorative objects, and that certainly goes for female managers at Deutsche Bank.”

I agree with comments made in Moira Forbes’ blog that Ackermann’s gaffe has sparked a much-needed rigorous debate about boardroom diversity – but that it “needs to extend beyond a buzz-worthy media faux pas into a mainstream, continuous media discourse”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned business leaders “to be creative, or we will be creative” – in particular, calling for German businesses to make their workplaces more family-friendly and offer flexible working.

While Merkel has so far resisted quotas, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has said that quotas will become necessary if companies do not comply voluntarily – and she is meeting with business leaders in March to discuss options.

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