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Britain Blocks Women on Boards Initiative

The Financial Times reported today that the UK has assembled enough support from among the EU member states to block an expected initiative that would require 40% female representation on corporate boards.  Much is being made of the idea that the protesting countries are already working on this issue and making excellent progress.

This is simply untrue.  The UK added a few more female board members in the immediate aftermath of EU Justice Minister Vivian Reding’s ultimatum to add more women to boards or deal with quotas.  But in the past 12 months, the FTSE 100 have added no new women to corporate boards. Further, GMI Ratings, who tracks this phenomenon in 45 countries, shows that Britain’s starting point was embarrassingly low, compared to other nations.

Nevertheless, British businesses are out in front today, arguing loudly to be allowed to continue their dismal performance.  Others, like Ines Burckhardt and the FT‘s editor, argue that the issue of representation on boards is a small problem compared to the real cause:  the stair-step decline in female representation at each higher level in corporate structure.

Indeed, the board membership issue is epiphenomenal, but I don’t think that means it is trivial nor that it is not the right lever to press if you want to solve the real problem.   You can see in the chart below that the paucity of  women in UK board positions is an outgrowth of their declining numbers from entry level to the C suite.

Commentators are quick to call for better parental leave policies, but such actions have not changed this particular pattern in the Scandinavian countries.  So what to do? It seems to me there are two issues to be confronted:

Parenthood is a lifetime commitment.  It does not end on the birthing table.  Nor at the kindergarten door.  In fact, in my experience, the teen years are the biggest challenge–and both the risks and the blame are greater if something goes wrong.  “Progressive parental policies” commonly focus on the period immediately after birth, as if parenthood is a temporary stage, maybe lasting as long as two or three years.  To accommodate the reality of parenthood, a major social change has to occur in which men share equally in family care at all stages and corporations start recognizing that their employees, even the salaried ones, have a right to a life outside the office.

There still appears to be a massive level of informal discrimination. Plenty of evidence exists to suggest that women are simply not treated fairly in the workplace. Both of the pay measures reported by the World Economic Forum consistently show women are paid less, even for equal work and even where such discrimination is illegal. Women, in spite of having much higher qualifications as a class, are under-represented in both business and government–and at every level, not just the board room.

Maybe women don’t make it to the top because they all quit to have babies.  But I think that is a simplistic argument and an artful dodge.  Evidence suggests that practices like taking clients to strip clubs, bullying in the workplace, and absurd working hour expectations all take their toll.  In the end, it seems to me, the only real explanation for the absence of women at the top is that they are not wanted there.

Why should British businesses–or businesses across the EU–be given more time to dawdle and dissemble on this issue? If they are forced by a quota to find and cultivate enough women to populate the board room, they will have to find and cultivate women at every step on the way to it.  And that is what they should be doing anyway.


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