Why I support the 40 per cent quota for women on boards

Kickstarting gender equality.

The proposed introduction of mandatory European quotas for women on the boards of larger companies has sent a ripple of fear through the business world in the UK. Certain company bosses and politicians always fear change. Change involving women is even more scary.

Setting quotas has, however, worked in other parts of Europe. Norway introduced legislation in 2003 when women represented just 9 per cent of executives at board level. Since then female representation has increased to 40 per cent, a great achievement in under a decade. Rather than collapsing, as many reactionary Britons may have expected, businesses in Norway have thrived as more women have taken up senior positions.

The reality is nobody knows exactly what the European Commission's legislative proposals stipulate because they have not yet been published. The plans are at present being scrutinised by the Commission’s lawyers. Only when they are happy can Viviane Reding, the Commissioner responsible, announce her plans.

Despite not knowing any of the detail of the draft legislation, the UK’s Business Secretary, Vince Cable, spearheaded opposition to what he assumed Mrs Reding would propose, sending a letter to the European Commission signed by eight other member states. The letter strongly criticised the plans and told Mrs Reding and her colleagues at the Commission that “the UK had no intention of supporting such legislation but thank you very much for the offer.”

I am a member of the European Parliament Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee where debates on mandatory quotas for women on company boards have been taking place for some time. During our committee meeting last month I expressed anger at the UK government’s publication of the letter to Commissioner Reding, saying it was shameful that the British Government was taking such a reactionary line and jumping the gun.

This is another embarrassing episode for the UK in Europe. A chaotic, ill thought through approach like this undermines Britain’s position in the EU. Far from looking powerful and impressive, taking a position which is both reactionary and rigid sends a very negative message to other member states, making the British look weak and foolish.

Mrs Reding's response to the letter from the UK Business Secretary demonstrated her indignation in no uncertain terms: “European laws on important topics like this are not made by nine men in dark suits behind closed doors, but rather in a democratic process with a democratically elected European Parliament," was her uncompromising message to Cable.

Away from the political fallout this has created, it is important to consider why female representation on boards is so low. Women perform as well as men at university and in their early careers, so they are no less capable of doing just as well in more senior positions. There are women qualified women to sit on company boards across Europe, many of whom have already been identified by Commissioner Reding.

This proposed European legislation is not intended to dictate to businesses how they structure companies or force them to appoint token women. Mandatory quotas for women on company boards are required to kick start gender equality at this level. While there has been a small improvement in the last year it is not a significant enough leap.

The Cranfield School of Management reported a slight increase in the percentage of women on the boards of the UK's 100 largest listed companies. Their statistics revealed that 15.6 per cent, of women sit on company boards today compared with 12.5 per cent last March (2011).

We do not yet know the detail of the draft legislation, but we do know Mrs Reding wants the 40 per cent quota to be operative by 2020. If this is successful it will be a huge improvement and something I will be very proud to have supported.

Mary Honeyball MEP, Labour spokesperson in Europe on gender and equality.

A woman stands outside Standard Chartered. Photograph: Getty Images

Mary Honeyball MEP, Labour spokesperson in Europe on gender and equality.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.