Are recruiters key to boardroom diversity?

28 Feb

How hard can it be to find competent women to perform boardroom roles? (pic credit: istockphoto.com/tiler84)

Boardroom quotas? Who wants them – really?

Who wants to be a woman chosen just to make up the numbers? And who wants to be a man sitting elbow-to-elbow with a woman at the polished table of power, believing she ‘s only there for quantity rather than quality?

In some circles, quotas amount to positive discrimination: women and ethnic minorities should only ever be promoted/appointed on merit, and on the basis of being absolutely the right person for the job. In other circles, quotas are being discussed in terms of a grudging necessity, or a dragging inevitability. A survey from White Water Group revealed that two-thirds of senior women believe that quotas may be the only way to achieve Lord Davies’ target of 25% female board representation by 2015.

Yet a year on from the Davies report, and quotas are the hot potato that no one wants to grasp or end up lumbered with. Among the many surveys that have been carried out to mark the one-year anniversary, it is the comments from recruitment firms that stand out.

Instead of being victims of the story here – wringing our hands and wondering whether governmental intervention will sort out a problem that should be eminently solvable without legislation or quotas or awkward number crunching – recruitment firms are urging action. Of course, part of the reason they say this is to promote their service and expertise, but I think they make a strong point.

David Winterburn, chair of the Association of Executive Recruiters (AER), argues that while Davies has been a catalyst, so much more needs to be done to nurture, mentor and support women into wanting top roles and having the skills and attitudes to reach them.

“While companies are convinced they need more women on boards, actually making this happen on the ground is a challenge,” he said. “We urgently need to break down structural barriers and rethink policies to support women with young children or caring responsibilities. We also need to up the ante in terms of mentoring and must continue to raise awareness of some of the excellent support networks that can help women navigate their career paths. In the short-term, executive recruiters have a pivotal role to play by reaching out to more women candidates and providing practical support and coaching.”

Ken Brotherston, executive chairman of Directorbank, takes this one step further. The Life in the Boardroom report from Hanson Green and Directorbank, in partnership with MM&K, shows the stark contrast between men and women when it comes to achieving boardroom diversity. While 45% of female board directors in the survey said quotas would be necessary, only 4% of men agreed. Added to that, a worrying 12% of directors believe that board performance would be negatively affected by having more women in the C-suite.

While this may smack of fear of change, and of maintaining the status quo, I find myself agreeing with Brotherston’s comments: “Board appointments should be made on the basis of business needs, skills and ability – no one wants to forfeit merit. But it’s hard to believe that in a country that’s home to 32 million women, we should need legislation and quotas to find another 100 senior women capable of filling board-level roles in the FTSE100.  If companies don’t want to be micromanaged and dictated to by government, they need to do more to solve the problem themselves.”

Hear, hear. Now, what are we waiting for..?

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