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Jane Scott: Women will rise because of talent not quotas
04 September 2012
Getting more women on to corporate boards is now firmly on the agenda for business and government.
The FTSE 100 looks set to meet the Government’s target of 25 per cent of directors being women ahead of the 2015 deadline. Meanwhile the EU is today reported to be preparing rules that will force larger listed companies to ensure that 40 per cent of their non-executive directors are women — not an approach favoured by most UK campaigners, but a sign of the issue’s prominence.
Yet when Elin Hurvenes and I set up the Professional Boards Forum in the UK in 2008, with the aim of increasing the pool of women candidates to sit on boards, we were among pioneers in a wilderness. The dean of the business school where Elin and I met as MBA students said we wouldn’t get any interest from FTSE 100 chairmen. And when the then minister for women and equality convened a group to discuss the issue, the meeting was abandoned after five minutes as something important had come up.
Still, the Forum took off quickly: we’d touched a nerve. At our first event just a few months later one company chairman quipped: “The only time I’ve ever seen so many FTSE 100 chairmen in one place was the last Chelsea Flower Show.”
Last autumn the Prime Minister welcomed us to Downing Street to express his pleasure with the progress following the 2011 Davies Report, which proposed voluntary company targets for women on FTSE boards. We have now had 100 chairmen take part in the Forum and nearly 50 appointments have been made from our alumnae group.
While Government action has been a catalyst for change, chairmen have taken a lead by insisting on being shown a broader talent pool and choosing excellent women directors. There has been pressure from women candidates, companies, corporate governance bodies and the media for progress. Headhunters have a new code of conduct.
This activity has been underpinned in the past two years by Helena Morrissey and the 30% Club, who want the proportion of women on boards to hit 30 per cent by 2015 through voluntary action; they oppose quotas.
Investors have weighed into the debate: the combined force of more than £1.8 trillion-worth of funds under management speaks volumes.
Yet this progress masks a continuing concern about women’s careers. The lion’s share of change has so far come from the appointment of female non-executive directors (NEDs), while there has been negligible movement in the numbers of women who make it to executive director level.
But the rise of women NEDs cannot be dismissed as box-ticking. Sound corporate governance relies on the expertise of hard-working directors. Chairmen and nomination committees take the appointment of NEDs seriously. The bar is high for both men and for women, and rightly so: appointments must be on merit.
The first email I read each morning is my alert for new board appointments. I’m delighted if there is a woman on the list; it makes my day if it is someone we have promoted through the Professional Boards Forum.
Jane Scott is UK director of the Professional Boards Forum. Tonight the Evening Standard hosts a major debate on the issue.