Women do not want tokenistic promotions

Stuart Fraser
WHEN Lord Davies last week announced that companies should aim to have women filling 30 per cent of the seats on their boards by 2015, he warned that this represents a “last chance” for corporate Britain to instigate a change in behaviour, otherwise the government will be forced to impose statutory quotas.

Clearly this is an issue that requires our attention, but few women looking to reach the top of their chosen profession want to succeed as a result of positive discrimination. Indeed many who have achieved senior positions through skill and hard work are rightly concerned that they may be judged, by the outside world, to have got there by another route.

Any woman, indeed any person, promoted as a result of tokenism – be it real or perceived – may find themselves on the margins of the decision making process; on the board but not really part of the board. While targets are being hit and boxes are being ticked, it is very easy for the underlying problems to remain unresolved.

And so, while we must clearly remain vigilant against practices that create barriers to meritocratic recruitment and promotion, changes in culture are more effectively addressed through education, not legislation.

Aside from the enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation, is it the role of government to dictate to independent professions how they recruit new employees or promote existing staff, to enforce arbitrary quotas on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin or any other distinguishing feature? Many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable with this principle.

Lord Davies’ announcement was followed by the news that 35 per cent of new non-executive board posts at FTSE 100 companies have gone to women this year, up from 15 per cent last year. In France there was a similar growth in the appointment of women to boards immediately before quotas were introduced.

This sudden leap in recruitment may well reflect a sudden reassessment of the qualities of female candidates. There is, though, a lingering feeling that this does not represent real progress but is merely businesses pre-empting a political decision.

There is a danger that businesses will simply recruit to reach their quota rather than change the culture of the business. Discrimination in all its forms can be very subtle and difficult to define so we need to focus on changing embedded prejudices and practices. This will not happen if the easy option is to tick a box.

Good corporate governance is the key and shareholders need to question management on how they select for board appointments and to be assured that the process is fully transparent and based on ability rather than gender selection or cronyism.

Stuart Fraser is the policy chairman at the City of London Corporation.