Women in the Board Room, Good for Business Good for Growth!

Originally posted 9th October 2012:

This afternoon I attended a Conservative Party Conference Fringe Event. Now I’m not into party politics. I’d far rather research issues myself and come to my own non-partisan conclusion than be told what I should think by a bunch of total strangers, thank-you very much! (That and I’m part of the generation of young voters still suffering from a total loss of political idealism after the fallout from the last general election *cough-LibDemstuitionfees-cough*.)
But, for those benefit of those who have never attended any party conference fringe events, many have that lovely attribute of being about political issues without necessarily being about particular political parties. The event I attended today was of just that ilk, it was entitled: The Politeia Women in the Boardroom: Good for Recovery, Good for Growth!
This event took place in a packed out little room in the Novotel hotel and it was genuinely good to see, not just lots of women there, but a fair few men too. The panel was lacking in neither experience nor status and featured some fantastic, and successful, guest speakers. The main focus of the discussion was essentially: women on boards – there aren’t enough, is this really a problem and what should the solutions be? With a particular emphasis on whether quotas are a good idea or not.
Personally, I’ve always been a bit suspicious about quotas. I think they are a trifle patronising (a sort of ‘well you wouldn’t have got here based on your own merit but you’ve done very very well for a woman sooo you’re promoted!’), build tensions between those who qualify for quotas and those who don’t (‘she’s only here because she’s a woman’) and don’t address underlying issues preventing women from aspiring to reach these positions in the first place. So I can honestly tell you it was a mighty relief to hear a panel full of actually successful women (and a man) largely sharing these views. Here’s a brief summary of who said what:
Helen Grant MP: Helen Grant, Minister for Women and Equalities felt a top down approach like a quotas is inappropriate but that boardroom culture certainly needs to change. She quoted an encounter with a member of an all-male board who said of the situation ‘It’s brilliant, we all think alike, discussions are brief and we usually come to the same conclusion’. This is precisely why we need more women and increased diversity – it’s all about getting a variety of perspectives in order to ensure the best possible practice, put forward innovative suggestions and spot flaws in the collective plan.
Sarah Sands, Editor of the London Evening Standard: Sarah was also against quotas, she felt it was a business culture issue that was putting women off and more needs to be done to address that, not artificially adding women in at the top. She also pointed out that the rhetoric surrounding quotas was all focused on boards – she questioned why this was and why not on women running businesses themselves? (Note: with Marjorie Scardino stepping down from publisher Pearson there are now only three female CEOs of FTSE top 100 companies). She used a lovely simile to describe the situation of the tough women currently running businesses: they are like Polar bears, strong and slightly terrifying but in rapid danger of extinction – we need to protect their environment and help them survive and multiply or we’ll miss them when they are gone.
Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management and Founder of the 30% Club: The 30% Club was founded with belief that a non-commercial organisation was needed to co-ordinate activities and drive a concerted effort by the business community to balance
their boards. Helena stated that we need business lead solutions, not quotas. If businesses don’t take ownership of the idea it is doomed to fail. She cited the 1000s of pages of rules and regs regarding banking and how all that didn’t stop the economic crisis – if businesses don’t both want and fully embrace these balanced boards they won’t stick.
Stephen Haddrill, CEO of Financial Reporting Council: Stephen was the only male voice on today’s panel. He too was not  overwhelmingly in favour of quotas but he did stand by their potential to provide positive role models. What he did propose, however, was a system whereby companies have to report the composition of their board, plans for improving the balance and steps they are going to take to get there on a regular basis.
Helen Brand OBE, Chief Executive of ACCA: ACCA were the funders of the afternoon’s event and Helen Brand was exceptionally well versed on the statistics regarding women on boards. She referred to the Cranfield report which has revealed some interesting things,
firstly that most women on boards have a background, and qualifications in, finance, whereas this simply isn’t the case for men (suggesting another potential barrier to advancement for women). She also, whilst against quotas in theory, pointed out Norway has a 40% female quota for their boards and it seems largely successful.
Marina Yannakoudakis, MEP: Marina cited a very interesting debate going on in European Parliament at present. Someone
has leaked a proposal for the EU to create legislation that forces quotas for female non-executive board members on businesses. Some are in favour, some against. She (rightly in my opinion) is highly against this measure because:
1) the EU has no right to impose such a thing in the first place, it’s up to resident countries and the businesses within them to resolve this issue
2) each country within the EU has its own unique business culture and using a universal set of quotas for the whole thing would be like using a very very blunt instrument in a very delicate operation and
3) why focus non-executive directors? You know, the kind of director that is essentially there to discuss issues but aren’t the real power in the debate, what does that say about how the EU views the role of women in business?
Instead she favours more support for women as they make their journey up through the career pipeline, ensuring that the promising
young graduates of today have the support to make it to being the CEOs and executives of the future. She particularly mooted the power of mentoring.
Harriett Baldwin MP : Harriett brought her experience from being on the Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee beginning of their career journey. She referred to measures already beginning to be put in place – e.g. the move to universal credit aiming to avoid the catch 22 situation many working class women find themselves in whereby they would like to work over 16 hours a week and advance in their career but it isn’t financially beneficial to do so. She also stated her support for the idea of forcing companies to give employees the option of splitting maternity-paternity leave in order to balance out the perceived risk of hiring a young woman over a young man, especially in smaller companies.
So after the speeches were made we moved on to a question and answer round. Most questions were interesting and on the topics outlined above. However we were soon given a swift reminder why, far from being quite obviously common sense to all, these issues still need debating. The first question was from a fellow from the Campaign for Merit in Business (in the interest of impartiality you may view his blog here: http://c4mb.wordpress.com/ …I assume you don’t need me to elaborate to gather what my views on this are…)
His question was ‘where is the evidence that women are good for boards? Because I have some here that I will hand out at the end which shows that women are bad for businesses and bad for boards’. The panellists dealt surprisingly well with this odd comment, doubly odd because many of them had, in fact, been citing studies during their presentations. Helena Morrissey swiftly responded with citing no less than six reports but, rather graciously in the context I thought, freely stated that, actually whatever your hypothesis, causality is notoriously difficult to prove – are these boards featuring higher numbers of women performing well because there are women on the boards or are there women on the boards because the companies in question are more progressive and innovative? It’s near impossible to tell, but they certainly seem to be doing something right.
In summary this afternoon’s event was pretty great really. It got me thinking about issues I hadn’t considered, such as the current debate in European Parliament and just whose responsibility it is to make sure boards are more balanced, and got me wondering about my own future and where I see myself ending up. It’s also made me regret that this is probably the only fringe event I’m going to be able to attend this conference, tomorrow being the last day it’s in town. So for future reference then readers, whatever your political leanings, next time there’s a conference in town pick a few topics you’re interested in and go see what you can find out. I can’t  comment on all fringe events but this one was definitely fun.
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