Margareta Pagano: Quotas for women! Why their time has come

France's Finance Minister was set against forcing firms to put more females on their boards, but she has changed her mind – and with good reason

Madame Christine Lagarde has been a heroine of mine ever since she took on the bankers during the financial crisis, forcing the French banks to curb bonuses and thus taking pay to the top of the international agenda.

So it was a treat to actually chat with the French finance minister, albeit briefly, when she swooped into London last week to help campaign for woman power at the FT's conference Woman at the Top.

She's one of the few women I've seen who can wear dangling diamond earrings, a jewel-encrusted dress and high heels in the daytime without looking as though she should be at a cocktail party. Au contraire; Lagarde looked great, sounded brilliant and, what's more, admitted that she had completely changed her mind on one of the biggest issues of our day – a minimum quota for women on company boards.

After agonising for months, Lagarde told us why she has been persuaded that forcing companies to adopt quotas for female executives is the only way to get traction on what has proved to be an intractable situation. Even at the present rate of increase, she said, the gap between men's and women's pay will take 57 years to equalise; it will, at this rate, be centuries before more women break through to the highest echelons of industry.

That's partly why Lagarde now believes change must come from the top, citing President Nicolas Sarkozy's recent demand that half of all candidates for the Legion d'Honneur be women. But I suspect it's also out of sheer frustration. In her flawless English, she told the story of how, soon after becoming Finance Minister, she was approached by several of France's top chairmen, all complaining about how they really wanted women on board but just couldn't find enough of them. Lagarde drew up a list of 50 top-notch, highly qualified French and European women and gave it to the chairmen with the clear message – "I've found them for you, now do something about it."

So it's no surprise that she's backing France's new law on quotas, which in January goes for a final vote to require French firms to have women take up 40 per cent of all board seats, in five years. Just look at Norway, which has quotas, to see how well they work. And in Finland, firms with around 30 per cent of women on the board show a 10 per cent profits rise.

Like Lagarde, I've also always found the idea of quotas offensive, believing they demean women who want to be judged on merit, and that men would resent any "token" women. But I've also been converted after realising what a pure numbers game this is – and that the figures are so stacked against women that only intervention will bring change. Look back at the past two decades to see why; there have been numerous soft attempts by governments, head-hunters and the "male, pale and stale" boards to try to hire more women, but the numbers haven't really budged at all; about 11 per cent of all directors of FTSE 100 companies are women.

Egon Zehnder International, the search firm which helped the FT put together its ranking of the world's top 50 women, has come up with some stunning research which should persuade even the most cynical that the rules need to be changed. To start with, this shows that only 4 per cent of all directors in Europe are women, and, of those, only 28 per cent have "line management" experience in a big subsidiary or overseas. But, having such experience is a must if you want to make it to chief executive level. Thus, according to EZI, even women who have got to board level can't get promoted because they have been in the wrong jobs: most come from finance, marketing and HR. Can't blame the men for that.

By contrast, EZI's research also showed that nearly all the world's top female tycoons either run family businesses or have created their own empires – easier than working your way up the male hierarchy?

What's so interesting, though, is why, suddenly, the "women problem"– as one big City law firm put it recently – is suddenly so sexy. Two of the UK's most influential industrialists, Centrica's chairman, Roger Carr, and his Royal Bank of Scotland counterpart, Sir Philip Hampton, spoke up for more women on boards yet again last week, while Lord Davies is due to report back to the Prime Minister soon with his ideas on how to get more women to the top. And later this week a new book, Modern Muse, by Everywoman, is being launched, which claims that young women need more business mentors if they are to get on. This new mood reminds me of how the green campaign suddenly shot to the top of the agenda. Call me cynical, but I can see two reasons for this; fear and PR. The City's latest combined code gives companies a couple of years to improve diversity before they are forced to, while the EU is threatening to introduce a 20 per cent quota.

But both Carr and Hampton are against quotas. Carr told me he hopes aspiration rather than legislation will bring about change, while Hampton can see the virtue of quotas for non-executive directors. But he thinks we should wait to see if things improve over the next few years before moving to fixed quotas across the board.

But why wait? Lagarde cited the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as a model of feminine values that would help enhance companies' performances – values of persistence and an ability to reach out to others, including the generals who locked her up. If everybody believes that having more women on board is better for everyone, why do we want to keep half the population under house arrest?

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

DevOps Engineer - Linux, Shell, Bash, Solaris, UNIX, Salt-Stack

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: A fast growing Financial Services organisation b...

Trade Desk FIX Analyst - (FIX, SQL, Equities, Support)

£50000 - £60000 per annum + excellent benefits: Harrington Starr: An award-win...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?