Outlook: It is too early to celebrate more women on board

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The Independent Online

David Cameron does not have much to celebrate just now so maybe we should forgive him the bash he will host at Downing Street today for women in business. Party poopers, however, will say it is premature for the Prime Minister to crow about the improvement there has been in the representation of women at the highest ranks of business since the report published for the Government by Lord Davies on diversity earlier this year.

They will be right. For while the Cranfield School of Management, the authority on women in the boardroom, will announce today there has been a jump in the number of women directors, we remain miles away from achieving the level of diversity for which Lord Davies is aiming. And his modest instructions have been ignored by many businesses.

Lord Davies' target is for women to account for 25 per cent of all FTSE 100 directors by 2015, compared to 14 per cent today. In that context, the Association of British Insurers' statistics, that 23 per cent of new board appointments in 2011 have been women, is still disappointing, even if it represents a big improvement on previous years.

Even more disappointing is the fact that so many companies have just ignored Lord Davies' call for them to say publicly, within six months, how they would work towards his targets. That deadline expired at the end of last month – with only a fifth of FTSE 100 companies having complied. The figures for the next 250 companies, of whom Lord Davies made the same request, are even less impressive (and half these companies don't currently have a single woman on their boards).

Still, why should we expect companies to take this issue seriously when it is so hard to get their corporate governance watchdog to do more than the bare minimum? Yesterday, the Financial Reporting Council announced it has now updated its corporate governance code to include a requirement that companies report annually on their diversity policy, with specific reference to women. What it refuses to do, however, is require companies to say what targets they have set themselves and how they are working to achieve them. That, says the FRC, would be too much like imposing mandatory quotas, a policy option Lord Davies has rejected, at least for now.

Never mind that all companies should at the very least be working towards the 25 per cent target now set for them, or that so many companies have not even acknowledged this. The FRC intends to let them off the hook once more.

It will be fascinating to hear what women themselves have to tell the Prime Minister this afternoon about their experiences. He is, after all, a Prime Minister who presides over a Cabinet comprising 25 men and just four women.

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