20/11/2013 08:31 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

German Moves to Force Women on Company Boards Shames UK

Three cheers for Germany, where politicians have thrashed out a deal that will see companies forced to have at least 30 per cent of their boardrooms made up of women.

The two parties expected to form the next government have not only agreed the quota, but also put a timeline on it arrival: Two years. Good. We should be embarrassed.

It makes the UK seem dithering, reactionary and a backwater for business commonsense by comparison. Our voluntary approach set two years ago is for the FTSE 100 to achieve 25 per cent female non-executive directors by 2015. So far we have crawled along to 19 per cent.

The resistance to even temporary quotas for roles that are not even executive ones with real decision making authority, a battle for another day, is quite baffling and may become indefensible once the German laws are changed. A wealth of data shows that balanced boards produce better companies, both as places to work and places in which to invest.

It will be interesting to see how the newly-diversified German companies treat British counterparts. Some may well only do business with firms that meet similar gender mixes at senior levels. Inconceivable? So was a ban on smoking in buildings.

The puzzle is why we should be so behind the trend towards equal treatment. I know from my own networks of successful women in business that there is plenty of talent out there ready to take on complex business roles.

But the German frauenquote is a significant step towards getting women taken more seriously as corporate decision makers, not least because it will apply to all firms listed on the German stock exchange. In addition, larger firms will not be able to use the non-executive appointments as a figleaf to disguise not giving any genuine authority to women. They will be expected to make public how they plan to put women into senior executive roles.

There are those who argue against a quota, implying that it is both demeaning and creates hostility, presumably amongst men. Lawyers warn darkly of discrimination cases if a man, heaven forbid, found an expected promotion taken instead by a woman. The implicit insult being, of course, that the woman could not possibly be as skilled.

History tells us that all established prejudices build a mountain of arguments, advanced by brains both clever and ludicrous, to stop their partiality from collapsing under the weight of its own stupidity. The simple truth is this: It is neither humanly reasonable nor economically sensible to deny half the workforce their full potential.

Fortunately, the move towards forcing all companies in the EU to have women in at least 40 per cent of non-executive boardroom roles by 2020 has a following breeze. Two key committees of the European Parliament have voted overwhelmingly to support the plan, first proposed by the Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. It will go to a full vote in the Parliament sometime next year before then passing to the 28-strong Council of Ministers.

It seems extraordinary in the 21st Century having to make the case for boardroom roles based on gender; and for the British businesses that make it necessary to do so it should be a source of considerable shame.