12/11/2015 07:21 GMT | Updated 11/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Women Need Quotas to Reach the Top, or the Pretence Continues

We need quotas to get more women into meaningful roles on company boards. There, someone had to say it.

The Government-backed Davies Review set a target four years ago for 25 per cent female representation in boardrooms at top companies by this year. We are there, according to the latest annual assessment by Lord Davies.

Only we are not

Most of the positions given, often grudgingly, are for non-executive directorships; and the key is in the prefix. Many of them really are 'non' roles.

They carry an admission card into the boardroom, but no power to shape the direction of a company, even if some women are using their 'non' status to great effect.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that corporate UK is pulling off a sleight of hand whilst apparently supporting change.

Many firms, doubtless discomforted by the call to join the 21st Century, spotted the gap in the small print of the Davies target and busily found space for women, but only as often toothless non-executives.

'Job done, target met,' the chaps probably said down at the club house.

But now, in his final report, even Davies has conceded that putting women in symbolic rather than significant roles is certainly no job done.

He has himself for the first time drawn the crucial distinction between 'execs' and 'non-execs' and called for more women to be made the former.

But he stopped short of talking about targets;  and only advanced the cause by arguing that the aim should by one-third of seats of any kind on FTSE 250 boards by 2020.

Yet there is little evidence of genuine gender parity arriving any time soon just by willing it, despite all the publicity and political exhortation.

The number of female executive directors on the boards of UK companies remains stubbornly constant, at about six per cent.

As an excellent article in The Guardian pointed out: there are more men named John running FTSE 100 companies than all the female heads put together. (And just to develop the theme, men called Dave outnumbered women two to one).

So, whilst gender parity by any measure is welcome, we should be wary of hanging out more flags to mark non-executive roles, and, frankly, not even very many of them.

Why is it taking so long? We might charitably say that the bias is unconscious. But that hardly constitutes an excuse any longer.

Meanwhile, directors are sending a negative message by not drawing on the pool of talented women to fill important board roles. The sound of corporate indifference is being heard up and down the country, and in schools and colleges.

If it is genuinely unconscious then the Government or CBI should help by imposing mandatory, but temporary, quotas for female executive directors in firms above a certain size. They might start with the FTSE 250.

Objectors always argue that quotas demean or build resentment. Yet few can seriously argue that all female candidate short lists have damaged the House of Commons. Quite the reverse is plainly true, not to mention the fact that it is now more representative of the country.

Whilst the executive quotas are in place effort must then be put into ensuring a pipeline of female talent, which mean firms putting more women into management roles, more mentoring by those already in them, and conscious efforts by schools to introduce girls to female role models in business.

In the meantime, we need everyone called Dave on a board to think about what properly developing the power of women might mean for UK Plc. And the Dave in Downing Street to do the same.