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Not EU-nough support for women on boards

Annie Peate

25 October 2012

European Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding’s fight to get more women in top jobs was dealt a significant blow this week when her proposal to introduce 40% quotas for women on boards across Europe was questioned over its legality. Following advice from Commission lawyers that plans to introduce fines for listed companies that do not meet the 40% quota for women on their non-executive boards by 2020 and the suggestion of obligatory gender caps could represent a contravention of EU law. Reding will now be forced to present a ‘compromise’ proposal at a meeting on 14 November; however the central and most controversial principals will remain intact.

Debates around the introduction of EU-wide quotas for women on boards have persistently dogged legislators and policymakers since Lord Davies began his consultation on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in September 2010, then again in February 2011 when the results were published. Arguments both for and against their introduction are compelling and fiercely fought, which explains why many find it too difficult to choose a side without the addition of a caveat or two.

For those who support the quota progress is occurring but not at a desirable pace, with women  still making up only 16% of FTSE 100 company boards. They’re tired and rightly sceptical that numbers of women on boards will voluntarily reach the levels a quota would achieve; equally, those against the quota feel its introduction would prompt the hiring of women based on tokenism, not merit, which will leave them forever questioning whether they earned their place at the top or were simply handed it to avoid a company fine.

I feel quotas might offer more promises than they are able to deliver. They represent an effective, and extremely attractive, quick-fix solution. However they fail to address the systemic factors preventing women taking their place at the top. For example, I doubt that the act of adding a women to a board will ensure there are women to replace her when the time comes for her to graciously bow-out. What is needed are measures which encourage the creation of a healthy pipeline of talented and driven women equipped to rise up the ranks of management and encourage other women to do so.

We must also be conscious that this change cannot take place in a vacuum. Rather, we must take into consideration the specific needs of women, particularly in terms of caring responsibilities. In doing so we champion examples of best practice around job design, flexible working, maternity leave and other workplace issues which affect women (and men) in the UK. We need to create equal and fair work environments which don’t unnecessarily disadvantage certain groups over others.

We have now reached something of a watershed for women’s rights. Yesterday (24 October) saw hundreds of protestors march on Parliament, angry at the government’s past, proposed and forthcoming changes to employment, reproductive, social and economic policies which threaten to roll-back all the achievements of years gone by. Do quotas represent one such regression? I’m not sure, but I am sure that in this current climate any decisions which don’t appear to take women’s voices, needs and ambitions into consideration risk only further alienation.