David Prosser: Lord Davies's generosity on women on the board is about to be abused

 

Outlook Let us be charitable and say they are leaving it late. UKSIF, the sustainable investment group, revealed yesterday that it has written to all of the FTSE 350 companies which have yet to explain how they will respond to Lord Davies's report in February on increasing the number of women on the board, the deadline for which is fast approaching. So how many stamps did UKSIF have to buy? More than 250 – and 60-odd of the letters went to blue-chip FTSE 100 companies.

Now, it may be that all the companies still to set out a road map for hitting Lord Davies's targets for women on the board – 25 per cent by 2015, in the case of the FTSE 100's constituents – will do so on time. Chairmen were told to publish their road maps by the end of September, so there is just over a week to go. Somehow, however, one guesses that come next Friday, there will still be a sizeable number of responses outstanding.

What explains this failure to comply with even the easiest part of Lord Davies's instructions? And what does it imply for the chances of companies' actually hitting his targets for gender diversity?

The suspicion has always been that for very many companies, this is a very low-priority issue, and the low response rate appears to confirm that. As for the second question, it seems likely most of those companies which have failed even to map out how they might get to the destinations Lord Davies requires are going to get lost along the way.

The good news is the statistics show more women are now getting directors' positions. Almost a third of FTSE 100 board-level jobs this year have gone to women and an initiative by leading headhunting firms to seek out strong female candidates for senior positions may help that trend to continue.

Still, these appointments have barely moved the yardstick on which companies are to be judged in four years' time: women now account for 13.9 per cent of FTSE 100 board positions, up from 12.5 per cent at the end of last year. The comparable figure for the next 250 companies, by the way, is 8.7 per cent, up from 7.8 per cent.

Lord Davies said in February that this approach – targets rather than mandatory quotas – should be regarded as the last chance for Britain's biggest companies properly to embrace gender diversity. But having been offered four years to get to a relatively modest threshold – in Norway, for example, there is a legal requirement for 40 per cent of board members to be women – companies already appear to be thumbing their noses at the inquiry.

The really stupid thing is that it's obvious these companies are going to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century in the end. For even if Lord Davies does not make good on his threat to push for compulsion if the voluntary approach fails, the European Parliament, moving closer to legislation by the day, will certainly do so.

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