Is the EU right to legislate on quotas for women?

I’m particularly anti-quota now that I have seen the progress company chairmen have achieved

By Michelle Perry | Published 16:20, 05 March 12

QuotasThe news this morning of the European Union’s plans to impose mandatory quotas to ensure more places for women on boards was a bit of a shock. It’s not that policymakers in Europe hadn’t said they might legislate on the matter. They had. Some European countries have already successfully imposed quotas. But over the past year every businesswomen I’ve spoken to about quotas has unhesitatingly and stridently opposed the idea of quotas.

Maybe it’s because these women reached the pinnacle of their career without the help of positive discrimination and now resent the potentially easy ride they envisage for the younger generation of women now in business? I doubt it. I think it’s almost the opposite. They have forged a path illustrating that women are just as capable as women to succeed in business and now don’t want that hard work diluted by well-meaning, but foolhardy, policymakers.

I have changed my mind about quotas. When I first read Lord Davies of Abersoch’s report on women last February and saw how little the business environment had changed despite the number of women in the workforce my gut reaction was pro quotas. But having considered the opinions of lots of different men and women over the past year and had time to reflect I too am against quotas.

I’m particularly anti-quota now that I have seen the progress that company chairmen have achieved in one year in raising the number of women in British boardrooms. Part of me, of course, resents that such great strides were made in such a short time once the spotlight was shone on the offending issue. If it was that straight-forward why did chairmen wait to be pushed rather than took the initiative themselves?, I asked myself for months.

Admittedly, we are nowhere near Lord Davies’ target threshold of having FTSE 100 companies with 25 percent of women sitting on their boards. Nor do we have anywhere close to that figure for women in executive positions, which is another growing concern for many business women. But we have seen progress nonetheless.

By now many feminists may be wringing their hands in fury at my lax approach to encouraging change in the boardroom. But quotas could end up pushing women, not yet ready for the responsibility into board positions where they may fail, providing sceptics with the ammunition they’ve longed for to illustrate that women are not ready for the cut and thrust of the business world. When we all clearly know that’s not the case. But experience and training are vital prerequisites to making a board position work.

Imagine a world with quotas: Even if a woman has the adequate skills, experience and business nous to sit alongside her male colleagues in the boardroom, there will always be doubters who think she only got the job because of positive discrimination, therefore undermining not just her position but that of all female board members.

I believe progress must evolve – with a sharp nudge every now and again, of course. By raising the issue as Lord Davies did last year, he gave it a platform and a voice. That is half the battle. Since then there has been increased scrutiny on companies for this very reason.

Shareholders are now questioning the composition of boardrooms as more research shows that diverse boards perform better. These are all positive outcomes from simply airing a concern. If vocalising things and keeping an eye on and updating the public on them means that change occurs isn’t that better than forced change, which people rarely buy into or believe?

I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on the matter.

For now, Viviane Reding, the European Union justice commissioner who unveiled the quota plan today, will offer three months of consultation, before the EU takes the step towards European-level legislation.

The prospect of success for the proposal is looking slim however. An emphatic majority of national governments are against quotas and the EU needs the support of governments representing two-thirds of the EU’s population.

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