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Quotas For Women On Top Boards

April 29, 2010

Do we need a quota system to get women into top Board positions? is the question asked today by the (Liverpool) Daily Post’s Business writer, Tony McDonough. It is sadly the case that some very successful women argue no special case should be made for more women to join them; perhaps this was true for them as individuals. But this ignores the huge untapped talents of the female half of the population.

Tony McDonough refers in his blog to the view of Alison Cooper, new Chief Executive of Imperial Tobacco, one of the top FTSE 100 companies.

Her judgement is that a quota system to find more women for top Directorships is unnecessary; but McDonough’s position is more reasonable than Ms Cooper’s. She is doubtless an extraordinarily able Chief Executive, but however small the obstacles she’s faced (or otherwise), she’s only one person; and the general absence of women on Boards is a long-time established fact, as the Fawcett Society frequently reminds us.

Untapped reservoir of talent
Half the populations is female, so obviously half the talent in the country is also female. That talent must be put to good use much more than it now is.

Companies need to draw strongly on this often untapped reservoir of skills and knowledge. Quotas for a while is simply a slightly speedier way of ensuring this happens, helping those making selections to avoid the ubiquitous ‘people like us’ syndrome, as you suggest.

Since talent is patently not currently used by companies equally between the women and men, the issue here is one of redress and the intelligent use of personnel, not a matter of ‘positive discrimination’.

Getting the right experience
Also, more specifically, one of the stumbling blocks to women on top Boards has been that many women in corporate life have less experience of the sharp end of their businesses, which is then regarded as a ‘reason’ to pass them over.

So quotas in some form need to apply to middle management posts across the spectrum of experience, as well as at the top. This is a matter of managing human resources in an intelligent manner, and building in proper staff development for everyone. With the developing awareness of work-life balance for all employees, such an approach should be becoming easier. As you say, most of us will soon get used to it.

Changing male traditions
I in fact think this sort of issue is particularly acute in places like Liverpool; opportunities for women who stay on in Merseyside after training are fewer than in some other cities. This is still a very male-dominated city!

A version of this response was also posted as a Comment on Tony McDonagh’s article above.

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