We skirt around the issues with quota proposals
SPEAKING at a summit in Sweden yesterday, the Prime Minister revisited the issue of women in business, saying that he wanted to “accelerate” the increase in women on the boards of top UK firms.
Although he said he would not rule out quotas (though Downing Street subsequently did), David Cameron said he would prefer to boost the number of women directors without resorting to fixed allocations. In Sweden, women hold a quarter of boardroom posts. In Norway, where quotas came into force in 2008, it is 40 per cent compared with approximately 15 per cent of female directors at FTSE 100 companies here in the UK.
The argument that companies and countries run better if you have men and women working together at the top makes sense. The benefit to society of bringing more women into senior roles is not really in question; but underlying that logic seems to be the suggestion that more women in the boardroom would be a panacea for all business evils. Business isn’t that simple or that clear cut.
The question I continue to ask myself is whether this debate is really important or something of a smokescreen?
After all, when it comes to business start-ups – and we are consistently told that the economic recovery will be led by small business – government statistics show that more women than ever are opting to start their own businesses. According to the Labour Force Survey, a quarter of the UK’s 3.2m self-employed workers are women and 30 per cent of business owners are women. Female entrepreneurs account for approximately 7 per cent of the UK’s working population, double the figure in 1979.
Having set up and steered a customer insight agency through its formative years with my two female business partners, Marie Sutton and Deborah Sleep, I believe that more importance should be placed on the quality of the ideas that we are generating in our economy and how we follow through on them to develop successful businesses, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.
I don’t believe there are particular female characteristics that are likely to make you more successful in business. Tenacity, flexibility and the ability to change in particular circumstances are what matters. Some might say that these are female characteristics, but I prefer to think of them as entrepreneurial ones first and foremost. Our company runs well because we are three people who all have different views and, because we all have to agree, we have become used to finding compromise for the overall good. Perhaps women are generally better at compromising; we tend not to stick with a point of view when it’s clearly not right just so that we don’t lose face. But to say that all women bring the same thing to the business is absurd: we’ve always had different views and we like it that way.
The bottom line, of course, is that, male or female, to keep business thriving you are only as good as your last project. That means maintaining a 100 per cent effort for all current clients, staying on the pulse of new thinking in the industry and devising and executing better ways to deliver projects. It’s not about counting skirts around the boardroom table.
Lyndsay Peck is the director of Engage Research.