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:

Pros:

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.

Cons:

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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.