Good news, slightly tainted

If we don’t change the UK’s business culture, talented women will not thrive and we shall be poorer for it

By Michelle Perry | Published 15:31, 11 October 11

Good newsThe UK’s governance watchdog today announced that it would force public companies to report annually on the make-up of their boards, including the male-female ratio.

Baroness Hogg, chairman of the Financial Reporting Council, made it clear that she hoped the amendment to UK governance code, which will take effect from next year, would stave off the threat of a legal requirement in the form of a quota.

Hogg said: “We believe this gives a further opportunity to show that Britain’s ‘comply or explain’, Code-based approach can deliver a flexible and rapid response and is therefore preferable to detailed legal regulation, and we urge companies to demonstrate this as quickly as possible.”

Hogg is of course not the only woman against quotas. One of the few former female finance chiefs of the FTSE100, who had held several board positions when she was a FTSE CFO, recently told me in private that she would not have liked to have thought that her appointments came because of a quota, rather than being based on her reputation, achievements, skills and business acumen.

Another woman against quotas is Maxine Benson, co-founder of everywoman, who tells me: “While mandatory quotas have their heart in the right place, they will not solve the root of the problem as to why more women are not advancing into senior roles and onto boards.”

The FRC’s announcement comes on the eve of a House of Commons event tomorrow, when Lord Davies is expected to announce that nearly a third of all FTSE 100 appointments have gone to women since the “Women on Boards” report was published in February.

I’m pleased about the speed with which FTSE 100 boards have moved to recruit women- it’s worth noting though that the majority of FTSE250 boards remain male dominated. But this some pleasure is ironically tinged with disappointment.

It has taken just over half a year to secure nearly a third of all FTSE 100 appointments for women and yet many reputable women have for years been trying to gain a board position within the FTSE index to no avail.

The appointments further disprove previous claims that there simply weren’t enough women with the necessary qualifications to sit on the UK’s top corporate boards, but also it once again shows how little initiative boards show in their ability to mature organically without being forced or threatened.

Everywoman’s Benson adds: “The real issue is the health of UK plc’s female talent pipeline. While many young and ambitious women start off on the right track, the pervading macho, inflexible culture in business today makes it very difficult for women to progress beyond a certain point. If qualifications or abilities are not the problem for women succeeding, we must change mindsets. If we don’t change the culture of business in this country, talented women will not thrive and we shall be poorer for it.”

The issue here is, after all, not just about the gender balance of a board, but it is also about experience, background, history and culture of the people that sit on the board to avoid so called group think. The world has changed but corporate boards rarely seem to reflect these changes nor appear to want to move with developments.

Few in the UK want quotas and the recent appointments prove that we don’t need them, but we do need corporates to become more open to change without first being threatened with regulation.

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