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All Aboard? The EU Looks Again at Quotas for Women on Boards

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On 14 November, the EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, is due to announce revised proposals for European companies to appoint more women onto their boards. This follows an earlier attempt last month to achieve political consensus. The vote in October was delayed by legal concerns that the proposals went too far, and by significant objections, not least from the UK government, which was pushing instead to be allowed more time to make voluntary progress towards the 40% goal.

When the vote was delayed, I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief in many UK boardrooms. That relief came from women as well as men. As a non-executive director of a plc myself, I'm often asked my opinion on the subject. Fellow female non-execs worry that their efforts to get where they have on merit would be undermined if less capable women were drafted in, merely to make up the numbers.

Personally, I feel conflicted on the debate. Part of me agrees that artificially shoe-horning women into roles they might not be suited for could be very damaging to the perception of women's effectiveness on boards. This is bound to happen because the pipeline below the board does not have enough women in it to achieve 40% females on boards overnight, or even by 2020 as Ms Reding wishes, and so some candidates simply won't be right.

But another part of me wonders how much of a disaster this could possibly be? When I was asked to join a board I was arguably under-qualified for the position and guess what, I just learned the ropes. I might not have had the full depth of CV to warrant the appointment but instead there was a board that was willing to take a risk. I also think that my contribution is valued and does differ because I am a woman.

A 2010 Harvard study showed that women were much more likely to focus on clear communication to employees, prioritise customer satisfaction and consider diversity and CSR. This corresponds to my own contribution, perhaps with an additional smattering of calling out the board on its own dynamics thrown into the mix. My point is that some of those skills / areas of interest have been with me since the beginning of my career and haven't come about from masses of experience coming up through the ranks. If boards insist on impressive CVs as a passport to the board then there will never be enough women on boards.

I am acutely aware that I am a non-executive director and that boosting the number of female non-execs is an easy, low risk way of making up the numbers. The real issue is how do you boost executive directors. In a way, I think the solution is the same. Take a risk. It is well known and acknowledged that women don't put themselves forward until they're 120% ready, whereas men will 'have a go' with much less relevant experience. Boards, headhunters and HR need to accommodate this risk averse behaviour and compensate for it. Ironically, there is much research demonstrating that boards with at least one woman on them are less likely to go bankrupt (in addition to the considerable body of evidence showing how ROI and ROCE is higher with women on the board too). This is due to women's more cautious or prudent approach, and so the very trait that is holding them back from gunning for higher positions is actually the trait that boards could benefit from.

An additional problem is that not enough women aspire to be on boards. This is not a function of their lack of ambition, it's a reflection of how little being on a board appeals to them. Women certainly don't lack leadership traits but they are pragmatic and if the playing field doesn't look level they aren't going to spend too much time complaining about it and instead go off and find new playing fields in which they can lead in a way that's true to themselves. To borrow a male analogy from a recent 30% Club commentator "Why would you want to be given a free season ticket to Arsenal if you are a Chelsea supporter?" Quite!

The fact that the higher echelons of power are unattractive to women is to the detriment of society as a whole. It's not just corporate life that suffers from a lack of balanced decision making, it's the same in academia, law, health and elsewhere. So maybe we need to re-frame the debate to encompass the broader community rather than restricting it to boards.

What is clear is that merely sticking to the status quo will achieve little in progressing gender balance in the boardroom. Regulatory nudges have helped, with FTSE 100 boardrooms having risen to around 17% women, but something more forceful will be required to get anywhere near 40%. The British government's goal currently is to have a minimum of 25% women on FTSE boards by 2015. Commentators feel the likely outcome is that the 40% quota will become an objective, not a legally binding requirement. It is unclear though whether the EU would be able to impose sanctions on any company failing to meet that target. Whatever the outcome, UK businesses will need to take more considered risks, looking beyond traditional CVs, to get a stronger representation of women onto their boards in both executive and non-exec positions, and so benefit from the varied and valuable perspectives we bring.