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Tokenism and the boardroom: Quotas are a bad idea

in Opinion by . .

Diversity in business is great, and much needed - but when it comes to board appointments, the best candidate must get the job, regardless of quotas.

Bev James and James Caan

Women now make up 15 per cent of company directors in the benchmark FTSE 100 Index; this is an increase on last year’s figure of 12.5 per cent and what many commentators would call “a step in the right direction”.

Whilst this looks like progress, Lord Davies’s call for companies to have 30 per cent of women filling all boardroom seats by 2015 and Vince Cable’s recent open letter to FTSE 100 companies with all male boards, could actually be more damaging to women, ultimately undermining their position in the boardroom.

Diversity in business is a positive move as it brings a wide selection of backgrounds, talents and perspectives to the table. However, introducing a quota system to achieve this could lead to tokenism, a dangerous concept which runs the risk of tainting all women who end up on the board.

Under such a system, a woman who is highly competent and qualified for the job may start to question whether she is on the board because of her qualifications or because of her sex. This is a huge concern and will do little to empower women in the boardroom. A quota system will also lead to an undeniable change in the way female colleagues are viewed by their male peers.

What interests me is the motivation behind Davies' and Cable’s call. Do they want more women on boards because of the talent they will bring to the company or because they believe that women are being discriminated against under the current system?

If the latter is the case then legislation will not solve the problem but will only work to create more barriers and obstacles for females to overcome. Instead, the culture needs to change and this has to be addressed through education if true equality in business is to be achieved.

Having more women on the board is not just a numbers game. There is strong evidence to suggest that having more women on the board improves a company’s performance. Further studies, such as those in McKinsey’s “Women Matter: gender diversity, a corporate performance driver”, have shown that a "critical mass" of 30 per cent or more women at board level or in senior management roles produces the best financial results.

At entry level, there is roughly the same number of men and women going into companies but once you reach senior management there is a big attrition rate as women leave to start families. The majority of women want to combine work and family, relying on government social policies to allow them to do so.

The new plans to allow parents to share maternity and paternity leave could assist female career progression as it will help women balance work and family life, enabling them to return to work sooner. If you are going to take time out, you cannot return to work after nine months and expect to be top of your game but is the situation by design or discrimination?

While the culture does need to change board appointments must always be made on merit, with the best qualified candidate getting the job.

Bev James is MD and head of training for The Coaching Academy, founder, MD and head of training for the Entrepreneurs' Business Academy, a joint venture with James Caan, and most recently was appointed director of mentoring for Start-up Loans, the government initiative and the brain child of Lord Young.

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