The lively, extensive, star-studded panel of the Politeia fringe at Conservative party conference drew in a large audience of men as well as women. Considering questions including ‘Should the UK continue to block EU plans for female boardroom quotas?’ and ‘Should the UK make the move in law or in practice to bring more women into the boardroom?’ ensured the event would provoke debate, and a dynamic discussion did ensue after presentations from many prominent women (and a man) who had all experienced the boardroom.
Helen Grant MP, Minister for Women and Equalities as well as Justice, recalled a male friend’s viewpoint: “Our board is really effective because we all think same way, have the same views, favour short discussions and always reach the same conclusions.” With these stereotypes of gender, she argued it is clear that there are still many barriers for women and it is still a man’s world. Men recruit women believing that they will be the primary carer, consigning women to family home or to not having children. However, if we measure performance, gender balanced boards perform better statistically. She noted that there are now only 7 all male boards in the FTSE 100, branding them a “dying breed” though she did also point out the lack of progress in FTSE 250 firms and asserted that enforced quotas and positive discrimination alienate men and tokenise women. Instead, she argued, we women should aspire towards a fair meritocracy. In doing so, we need to be more assertive and take credit more, like men.
Sarah Sands, Editor of the London Evening Standard told the audience “when the going gets tough, it’s the men that get going” and that we approach the issue of gender equality on boards apologetically to stop men getting annoyed. She noted the good and the bad things women do, arguing women are more flexible, more open minded, and less egotistical. Despite being stereotypes, they are qualities that any business needs. She asserted that we need more women running businesses, not just influencing CEOs or suggesting ideas to them, concluding “let’s have a world where it’s embarrassing as well as economically batty to not have women on boards”.
Helena Morrissey CBE, CEO of Newton Investment Management and Founder of the 30% Club, also named ‘the most influential woman in the city’ stated the Davies committee’s recommendations are good, arguing that a better balance of types of people can prevent group think and is good for the dynamic of a boardroom. Leaders of companies have realised that unless we change the way that we work, we won’t attract and retain the ‘best and brightest’. The question of women in business is clearly entwined in this issue and Helena argued that we can’t fix the problem through quotas or legislation. Companies need to own this, people need to believe in this. We need to build a different culture and environment where it makes more sense.
Stephen Haddrill, CEO of the Financial Reporting Council expressed his feelings of privilege through working largely in the public sector alongside great women. He found it “frankly strange” that we are still having this conversation given his background and work with women, but that we are finally seeing a shift in emphasis of people on the board. He argued that the balance of skills since the financial crisis are as important as independence and that it is of vital importance that we get female role models established. He said “we will continue to lose out unless there are people that people want to follow” and that this is a matter of some urgency. He argued that companies should have to report on their board policy and dynamic including gender within the diversity of the board as a whole.
Helen Brand OBE, Chief Executive of the ACCA reiterated why diversity is so important on boards. She asserted that Executive Directors need to be women, noting SMEs are progressing, deliberately seeking women. However, Helen argued, females require much higher standards to be even considered, including a financial degree, background and experience, not always required of men seeking the same roles. On the issue of mandatory quotas, she argued that these would be corrosive for others to judge women, calling for a positive case for change not relying on legislation. Helen stated that diversity is a critical component of capability, and that women outperform rivals.
Marina Yannakoudakis MEP and Conservative Spokesman on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in the European Parliament argued that we shouldn’t allow the EU to legislate on this matter. She said “We are getting there and we don’t want the EU interfering”. Marina asserted that this is not just about boards, but also about supporting women to get there by raising awareness, mentoring and encouraging people with role models.
Harriett Baldwin MP affirmed she would never vote for imposition of quotas, branding them a “patronising, condescending approach to tokenism” and “counterproductive”. She argued that diversity isn’t just men and women and opened the debate up to the much wider issue beyond women on boards. She asserted we need to encourage women from offset of their careers with aspiration, networking, role models. Harriett stated that there are more women in employment now than at any other time in history, though there remains an untapped economic potential from women, so we should “remove artificial barriers and increase entrepreneurship” as women start business at half the rate men do. She stated SMEs are hesitant to hire women because of potential pregnancy, but that the issue of women in boardrooms has a lot to do with bottom up aspiration.
An overall thought-provoking and passionate panel event by Politeia, articulating the strong views of the successful women (and man!) on the panel.
For more on this issue, please see our Director Caroline Watson’s blog on Women on Boards