David Prosser: Quotas are the way to smash the glass ceiling

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The Independent Online

Outlook There is much to commend in today's submission from theConfederation of British Industry (CBI) to Lord Davies' inquiry into how we get more women into the boardrooms of our largest companies. But while proposals such as better mentoring of talented women and greater transparency in the selection processes used to make appointments to boards should, of course, be accepted, what the business group seems keenest to ensure is that no quotas or targets are imposed upon its members. We can but hope that the CBI is disappointed when Lord Davies publishes his findings.

It's hardly a surprise to hear that businesses do not much like the idea of being told they must recruit more women at the highest level, but they must – the submission of the CBI itself explains in articulate fashion why this is so important, not least for the sake of its members.

The laissez-faire approach to regulation has its advantages and it's not a bad rule of thumb that business should have an opportunity to put its house in order before being forced to do so. In this case, however, that opportunity has been missed.

It is not as if we have only just begun talking about the pitiful representation of women in the boardroom: the Davies inquiry is the culmination of years of frustration at the slow progress of the vast majority of companies topromote women to the most senior positions. All of the suggestions made by the CBI today could have been introduced by businesses years ago, but this did not happen.

As a result, the progress of women has stalled. The latest instalment of the most authoritative survey of women in the boardroom, conducted annually by Cranfield University, was published a fortnight ago. It revealed that women now fill 12.5 per cent of directorships at FTSE 100 companies, a pathetic increase on last year's figure of 12.2 per cent (and 12 per cent in 2008).

Will the CBI's suggestions accelerate the increases? Possibly, but not at the rate that is required. Other countries that have been struggling with the same problem have now opted for quotas and they have not run into any of the problems of tokenism that the CBI says it fears. We should now do the same.