Cameron’s own cabinet doesn’t meet his target

DAVID Cameron has written personally to the chairmen of many of our largest companies, admonishing those who have failed to set out plans for how they will appoint female directors to a quarter of all board seats by 2015. He will be hosting a meeting in Downing Street this evening with Lord Davies to trumpet the success of other companies on the same issue. Let’s call it a coincidence that all this follows in the wake of last week’s YouGov poll showing that Cameron is rapidly falling out of favour with female voters and is regarded as “the greatest male chauvinist” of all three party leaders. Whatever the Prime Minister’s reasons for publicly jumping to the support of female quotas in the boardroom, it’s going to add fuel to the debate.

And yet Whitehall knows only too well what a blunt instrument targets can be. Just last year, health secretary Andrew Lansley revealed plans to abolish the four-hour waiting targets, arguing that they stood in the way of best possible care for patients. It would be easy to fill this article with public-sector horror stories where a service hit a target while missing its point.

But what is the point? Is it that women deserve equal opportunities and that by introducing women into the boardroom we will have reached the final frontier of equality in the workplace? With half of the FTSE 250 continuing to have all-male boards, there is some basis for this position.

But if this is the intention then we should beware the Norwegian experience: In 2005, their government gave listed firms two years to put women in 40 per cent of board seats on pain of liquidation. They duly complied – and yet there has been no corresponding impact on the number of women on executive committees or in senior executive positions. Instead, a small pool of women non-executives are being recycled across multiple boards, an “old women’s club” if you like, and the cultural impact on gender equality in the workforce has not followed.

Perhaps the point is nothing to do with equal opportunities and is quite simply that boards make important decisions and diverse boards might make better ones. If the goal is to rid the boardroom of nodding dogs then women may have an important role to play, but why arbitrarily stop there? Surely boards should seek racial and social diversity too? But let’s also acknowledge that women who share exactly the same background as the men they are usurping may bring no greater diversity of thought to the table at all.

Of course Cameron’s letter to chairmen isn’t about either of these things. If it were, there would be a discussion of the real and complex issues – which he is clearly well acquainted with, since only four out of 29 of his cabinet positions are filled by women. In reality, this stunt is about politics not governance.

Jennifer Harris is the managing director of Board Intelligence.