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Needed: A 'Female Spring' to Let More Women Into Top Jobs

01/06/2013 01:01 BST | Updated 30/07/2013 10:12 BST

Women can run countries, go into space and take combat roles in the military, yet we are still apparently too risky a proposition for the boardroom. This needs to change, not just to end a breathtaking prejudice, but for the good of companies.

A "female spring" is needed to deal with this issue once and for all because the low number of opportunities for women in top business roles in the UK is shocking, with many firms complicit in allowing one of the few remaining tolerated discriminations in British life to flourish stubbornly.

Despite a sea of supportive, if often naïve, rhetoric from ministers, nothing is actually happening to improve the position for talented women, beyond a woolly commitment to encourage it. The answer is to force the pace with temporary quotas.

It is true that the number of women in non-executive roles has risen from 12.5 per cent to 17 per cent since a Government review, the Davies Report, two years ago. This set a target of 25 per cent female boards in FTSE 100 companies by 2015.

But to present that growth as progress is to miss the point: A non-executive director has as much actual decision making responsibility as a vase of flowers. What we need is more women in top management roles as executive directors, in place making decisions not merely as boardroom padding.

The voluntary approach is not working, as statistics are revealing. Only 6.3 per cent of executive directors in FTSE 100 companies are women, a rise of barely one per cent since the Davies Report.

But even Davies's modest target for female non-executive directors looks a forlorn hope. The Professional Boards Forum, a group that helps companies find them, reported recently that just 12 per cent of directors appointed in the two months to 1 May were women, compared with 50 per cent over the same period a year ago

The problem lies with what can charitably be described as unconscious bias in the boardroom and in the recruitment firms on which they often rely for senior appointments. Nobody of course admits to prejudice, but then prejudiced people rarely do.

The lack of recognition is why the only way to beat the bias is to impose quotas, at least as a temporary measure, to force through a cultural change and shock FTSE 100 companies into action. Without quotas it is hard to see how our educated, motivated daughters are ever going to reach their full potential.

Some people argue that quotas are demeaning, and that somehow merit and goodwill can make the change. But it is hard to think of a single area of discrimination where that has ever been achieved by such laudable hopes. What people do take seriously are rules with punishments attached for non-compliance.

There is nothing novel about quotas. Norway has managed to introduce them without a collective corporate coronary, 'Typical Scandi-chic, just grandstanding on a social issue', some muttered. But it has worked well since 2004, and with a quota set at 40 per cent.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, no slouch when it comes to running the only strong European economy, has just accepted that if 30 per cent representation is not reached within seven years there will be legislation. Yet the UK remains wedded to its "voluntary" approach to achieving a proper representation, the usual code for no approach.

It is not just a political argument about fairness and opportunity for people who deserve it. Research suggests that a diverse board delivers better value for shareholders and a more efficient company, apart from anything because it breaks the cycles of 'group think' by ensuring perspective from the other gender that occupies this planet.

The Government appears to be in a muddle, which actually may be encouraging. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has conceded that quotas are a "real possibility". But Maria Miller, the women's and equalities minister, has been quoted saying that most women were "working to make ends meet, that they can support their families, and what they want a government to be doing is to be focusing on their priorities."

Perhaps she had no intention to patronise. But why should her view be incompatible with a priority to help women who aspire to do more than 'make ends meet', particularly as an equalities minister? Getting women on boards was, she further suggested something "that quite obsessed" the last government. Good. It should be obsessing this one, particularly with its tumbling reputation among female voters.