Quotas for women on boards: all the pros and cons in one place

The UK has just voted against an EU-wide quota.

The UK is opposing attempts to impose a 40 per cent quota for women on all boards for companies listed within the EU, and has just recieved enough support to block it. According to the FT, a draft letter signed by nine labour and business ministers said:

We agree with the commission’s stance that there are still too few women on the boards of publicly listed companies

[But] we reiterate that any targeted measures in this area should be devised and implemented at national level. Therefore, we do not support the adoption of legally binding provisions for women on company boards at the European level.

The FT has reported that many businesses are opposed to female quotas, with  Business Europe, the largest employers group in the EU, saying that they fail to address the real problems with equality in businesses.

It's a fraught issue, and over the last few years there's been much back-and-forth about whether quotas damage or promote women's interests. It's irritating to see the same arguments trotted out again and again, so here's a summary of some of the strongest in both directions:


1. Here's a pretty strong one to start with: quotas are the quickest and most effective way to ensure more equal numbers of men and women on boards.

2. Quotas force the break up of elite circles that might otherwise remain unchallenged.

3. If women are promoted into positions of power, they can act as positive role models for others.

4. Once on the board, women are more likely to hire more women.

5. Quotas are not disciminatory, they simply correct existing discrimination. Is there existing discrimination? Well yes, if you a) believe that there are as many competent potential female board members as their male counterparts and b) take stock of the current imbalance in numbers.


1. Quotas discriminate against the individual men who happen to be running against a woman for a seat.

2. If women are employed through quotas, they will be seen as "token", will be less respected and will have less power.

3. Quotas set women against each other, competing for a certain number of "women's seats", which might destroy co-operation and unity.

4. Instating a quota might lend businesses to view them as a ceiling rather than a floor on the number of women, stalling progress on equality in the long run.

So there they are. Have I missed any? Please leave a comment....

The first female doctor qualifies despite all male board. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.