Women In The Boardroom: David Cameron Attacks 'Male-Dominated' Business Culture
The lack of women in Britain's boardrooms is holding back the country's economic recovery, David Cameron has warned.
The prime minister said there was clear evidence to signal that ending Britain's male-dominated business culture would improve economic performance.
He pledged to learn lessons from Nordic and Baltic countries as he joined eight of their leaders for a summit in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
However, his words may ring hollow with many women following a series of questionable recent incidents befalling both Cameron and his party.
In April last year, the prime minister was branded "sexist, insulting and patronising" by the Labour party, after repeatedly telling shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear” during Prime Minister’s Questions.
In May the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke infuriated men and women alike by distinguishing between “serious” and “proper” rape during an appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live.
In perhaps the most damning indictment of the Tories disconnect with the female vote, Number 10 published a memo in August that admitted: “There are a range of policies we have pursued as a government which are seen as having hit women, or their interests, disproportionately”.
Cameron’s comments came as he joined leaders from the Nordic and Baltic countries for a summit in Stockholm.
Securing promotion for women and encouraging female entrepreneurs is one of the two central themes of the Northern Future Forum.
The annual gathering, launched by the UK last year in London, brings together governments from the nine countries with experts to discuss shared issues.
This year, the leaders will also discuss how to ensure workers can continue in employment until a later age amid fears over the rising cost of pensions.
Cameron said: "The drive for more women in business is not simply about equal opportunity, it's about effectiveness.
"It's about quality, not just equality. That's why one of the things we'll be discussing in Sweden is what other countries are doing to help women become entrepreneurs and take up leading positions in business.
"Women now make up nearly half the workforce across Europe and the majority of university degrees. But they are still not sufficiently represented at the senior boardroom level.
"The evidence is that there is a positive link between women in leadership and business performance, so if we fail to unlock the potential of women in the labour market, we're not only failing those individuals, we're failing our whole economy.
"We're already helping women to set up and grow their own business in the UK. But the Nordic and Baltic countries are leading the way in Europe, with female representation on boards far above the EU average.
"So I want to get ideas in Stockholm that we can take back to London to explore if they could help us get more women into British boardrooms, boosting profits and contributing to the economic growth we all urgently need".
At present, just 15% of FTSE 100 directors are women.
A Government-commissioned report last year said quotas should be imposed unless top firms acted to increase the number of women on their boards to at least one in four by 2015.
Former business minister Lord Davies also said firms should be forced to reveal the number of women shortlisted for each vacancy as part of the process to force change - a move being adopted by the Government.
In the last year, 27% of board-level appointments at FTSE 100 companies have gone to female applicants, but one in ten of Britain's biggest firms still have all-male boards.
A book published by two Tory MPs - including Matthew Hancock, a close ally of Chancellor George Osborne - called for a 30% target backed by state-imposed sanctions if progress was not made quickly.
Norway, one of the countries attending the Nordic-Baltic summit, has a 40% minimum quota for all listed companies and Iceland sets the same proportion for publicly-owned institutions.
Home Secretary Theresa May, in her role as minister for women and equalities, struck a cautious note about direct Government action when she was quizzed on the issue in the House of Commons recently.
"The best way to get change is to do it in a way which isn't imposing a quota on a company but is encouraging people to recognise the talents within those companies," she told MPs.
"Progress is being made as a result of Lord Davies' report. We continue to monitor this and will continue to work with companies to encourage them to use the talent within them."
The UK is among the worst performing when it comes to female representation at the top of business among those at the summit - which also include Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and the hosts Sweden.
Cameron will join fellow leaders in open discussions with experts at the event - which takes a less formal approach than other such international meetings and will end with a joint press conference.
In an joint article ahead of the event, they said the twin issues were rarely discussed in top-level political talks despite being "crucial for the growth and competitiveness Europe so desperately needs."
Among the all-female team of experts from outside government recruited by Cameron for the talks is Helena Morrissey, chief Executive Officer of Newton Investment Management Ltd, who is spearheading the "30% Club" initiative in to get 30% women on UK company boards by 2015.
The others are Julia Hobsbawm, who runs the corporate networking company Editorial Intelligence and Joanna Shields, vice president and managing director of Facebook Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Business Minister David Willetts and David Halpern, director of Downing Street's "Behavioural Insight Team" are also attending.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: "These warm words won't fool women - they know that under this Tory-led government life for many working women is getting worse.
"The unemployment figures don't lie - they expose how hard women are being hit by heavy public sector job losses, and the lack of private sector job growth.
"Tory cuts are also depriving women of the low-cost childcare they rely on to stay in work. Across the country, Sure Start centres are closing, even though the Tories promised at the election to protect them."