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  1. Election 2024
25 February 2011

It’s time to redress the boardroom gender imbalance

But the approach recommended in the Mervyn Davies report risks excluding yet another generation of w

By Susannah Butter

This week’s report by the former banker Lord Davies of Abersoch recognised that women are grossly under-represented on boards. Lord Davies said that FTSE companies should set their own “challenging targets”, which will in turn lead to a “much higher figure” than the suggested 25 per cent  minimum of female board representation by 2015.

Is this recommendation enough to create more workplace equality and finally break through the “glass ceiling” that a recent survey has found 73 per cent of female managers feel is barring them from top jobs in the UK?

Girls outperform boys at all levels of education in the UK from Key Stage 1 to higher education. Somewhere along the way, something is stopping women from being equally represented in the workplace and reaching positions of power.


In an interview in this week’s NS, the investment manager Nicola Horlick admits that some “women don’t feel completely comfortable in [the City]”. However, she fails to address adequately why women might feel uncomfortable, merely saying she doesn’t “mind the pressure” or find it “intimidating”. Business and politics do not have to be intimidating, and writing them off as such continues to deter women from pursuing careers in these sectors.

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In business, politics and even the arts, women continue to be outnumbered by men.

There are 116 women on FTSE-100 boards, and only 12.5 per cent of all FTSE-100 directors are women. In a recent blog, the journalist Anya Schiffrin, wife of Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and Colombia University professor, describes the humiliation that many wives feel when they accompany their husbands to the Davos World Economic Forum, where only 20 per cent of delegates this year were women.

There are at present four women in the government cabinet of 23, and in parliament men outnumber women four to one.

This all matters deeply, not least because it means that decisions that affect us all are being made with hardly any female input.

The Rachel Reeves campaign, for example, highlights how the government’s plans to change the pension age are the latest in a long line of measures which leave women with an unfair deal.


Anna Bird, acting chief executive of the Fawcett Society, says that it is time for positive action to address gender inequality in the workplace:

Leaving businesses alone to tackle the problem on a voluntary basis isn’t working; continuing with this approach means excluding another generation of women from the top table of business. The time has come to take radical action.

“Radical action” doesn’t mean hysterical women storming the Houses of Parliament. Bird means quotas, which Davies stopped short of suggesting.

Many men and women baulk at the idea of quotas, repeating tired old arguments about how they constitute unnecessary meddling. Women may in fact suffer from being singled out for promotion on the grounds of sex rather than ability.

Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investors, believes that they are superficial and lead to tokenism; women may be put on boards in the short term but will not have any real power. She believes that change can happen organically and business can promote more women “without resorting to a quota”. Betty Boothroyd, the former Commons Speaker, feels that they are demeaning.

However, endless reports about encouraging women to succeed in the workplace do not seem to be working. Could Davies’s “challenging targets” be the answer?

France, Spain and Norway all have quotas on listed companies for female directors and board members, and so far business has not collapsed as a result, nor do women there appear to be demeaned. In fact, since Norway introduced a quota for women on boards in 2005, the number of female board members has gone from 6 per cent to 44 per cent. Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, believes that talking and good intentions do not solve anything and quotas are the only option.

Quotas do not have the power to erase gender inequality magically. Sadly we live in a society where women are not taken seriously. Politics and power are seen as being for men. Women may do well at school, the thinking goes, but they are better suited to looking pretty or nurturing children. A recent survey found that 68 per cent of 16-year-old girls wanted to be glamour models.

Meanwhile, feminism is all too often a dirty word, associated with man-hating lesbians and people who take themselves too seriously. These “rabid feminists” should just let their hair down, put on a nice dress and have a dance to Lady Gaga. Those women who do have successful careers are still surrounded by men and are struggling to combat the persistent stereotype that women who succeed in business are hardened old spinsters: bitchy, ambitious and somehow not feminine. Women “aren’t funny“, and if they want to be in the public eye they can’t have hairy legs, fat thighs or, God forbid, wrinkles.

Quotas may not be ideal but they should be seriously considered as a step to a fairer society where the silent half of the population can have their voices heard and perhaps one day “have it all”.

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