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Women on boards: two years on, work in progress

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Headhunters, too, have an important role in changing the culture in British business and Carr believes they are responding to the challenge. Executive search firms had to recognise that their job isn’t simply to pick the stars of today it’s also to look deeper in organisations to find the rising stars of tomorrow.

Bottomley agrees. By and large, headhunters simply respond to market demands. The voluntary code is working: women are high on the agenda. I?m sincerely encouraged by the progress of the past two years, but tenacity is needed. It’s?too easy to focus on diversity one minute, CSR the next and the environment the one after that. Diversity needs to be embedded into companies” strategies.

Although Bottomley accepts that gender equality is a long-term play, PwC’s Nicholson warns that patience should not descend into inactivity. There is no room for complacency,” she says. Particularly in times of austerity, where firms are cutting resources, it’s easy to lose sight of those objectives and the way things have moved on already. We all need to stay focused.

The threat of quotas

Business leaders hope that the voluntary system will be effective enough to prevent the imposition of legally enforceable quotas. That would certainly not be good for either women or businesses,” Carr says. It is much better for a woman’s self-esteem to know that she has got to the boardroom on?merit rather than through legislation. The UK’s strategy is definitely the most effective and appropriate way to improve female representation.

But the spectre of intervention from Brussels remains. Last November Viviane Reding, the European Commission vice-president who has spearheaded the campaign for quotas, proposed a directive to set a minimum objective of 40 per cent female board membership by 2020.

“It isn’t a rigid quota but it establishesAn objective with procedural obligations in order to reach it,” explains Reding’s spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva. The measure is set to expire altogether in 2028, and it will no longer have an impact on companies that have reached the target.

Cannon believes a voluntary approach is preferable though adds that it’s ?useful to have the stick of quotas in the background and is concerned by the prospect of a 40 per cent target. We still have a relatively small pool of women who could take on non-executive roles. We need time to build up the number of women who can do the big executive roles, giving them the experience necessary to be non-execs.

Bottomley adds that quotas go against the British corporate governance code which has been based on principles, not rules. And Capgemini’s Hodgson agrees. Quotas are not necessary,” she says. If the Davies report hadn?t had the impact that it has had, perhaps there would be more justification for them.

Andreeva acknowledges that the Davies report is a ?milestone and that the UK’s progress since then is a ?promising start?. She adds that the commission’s proposal would allow member states to retain their own systems if they prove effective.

Yet, regardless of the debate about quotas, it is vital for companies to keep up the momentum and continue showing that the voluntary system is effective. The one thing we can’t do is relax,” Carr warns. The minute we believe that the battle is won is the beginning of losing that battle. Keeping this matter high on people’s agendas is important.

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