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Quotas For Women

By Sairah Ashman

Boardroom quotas for women are good for business and good for society.  We’re no longer debating that gender balance and diversity more generally on boards is a good idea – there’s lots of good independent evidence to prove this.  We’re now debating the most effective method to increase female representation in this notoriously white male traditionally educated domain.

I believe in quotas because I want to see change happen quickly, so we can all benefit from the positive benefits that balance will bring.  We often fear change unnecessarily.  Quotas are the nudge we need right now.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission ‘Sex and Power 2011’ report last year revealed we are still 70 years from where we should be on delivering equality in the workplace. Seventy years is the equivalent of at least two generations of women’s working lives.  This is astonishing and we should take more seriously the consequences and implications of such an outcome.  Not only is it an enormous loss of talent, it’s a poor reflection on our ability to create a modern equitable society in the 21st Century.

The report, which measured the number of women in positions of power and influence across 27 occupational categories, found that more than 5,400 women are missing from Britain’s 26,000 most powerful posts. And that advancement towards equality was not just slow but had stalled in some sectors. Even Lord Davies’ modest call for a minimum of 25 percent representation within the FTSE 350 is shaping up to be too big a challenge for corporate UK right now.

 The big fear when Norway introduced female board quotas was that there would not be enough qualified women ready for selection and that many would not rise on merit alone.  These fears turned out to be unfounded.  The door opened and a lot of previously untapped talent simply filed on through.

Those arguing against quotas say it will be hard for women to have an equal seat at the table if filling a quota is what got them there. I don’t believe this.  No successful enterprise could afford to keep any board member if they were not pulling their weight, therefore no talented woman would be kept on a board because of a quota, it would just be the means of getting there.

If there’s a downside from Norway’s experience of implementing quotas, it’s that there has been no meaningful shift in women taking up influential executive roles, such as the CEO position.  There are more female non-execs in place, but there is more work to do in creating balance when it comes to the real positions of power at board level.

The Davies report states that women now form 51% of the UK population and 46% of the economically active workforce. They are estimated to be responsible for about 70% of household purchasing decisions and to hold almost half of the UK’s wealth. It also tells us that around the world, women have become the new majority in a highly qualified talent pool. In Europe and the USA, women account for approximately six out of every ten university graduates and in the UK women represent almost half of the labour force.

In an increasingly mobile and global working environment we’re in danger of seeing some of our best talent walk off site.  We also risk losing experienced voices that represent half of all buying needs in the UK.  This would rob of us of much needed innovation and more informed decision making when it comes to product and service development.  Both of which are in high demand as we look for new paths to growth and a way out of the current economic malaise.

It’s time to move things forward positively and to do so quickly.  Quotas will ensure change happens effectively.  They’re a much better alternative to keeping our fingers crossed.


Sairah Ashman is the COO of Wolff Olins, her comments are appearing this month as part of a series in the Financial Times’ Executive Appointments.

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