Last chance to get women on UK boards

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The Independent Online

Lord Davies of Abersoch will warn British companies this week that they are in the "last chance saloon", and if they don't move quickly to appoint more women to top positions, they will face quotas.

The former Standard Chartered boss will recommend that companies should aim to have women fill 30 per cent of the seats on their boards by 2015, when he publishes his report this Thursday.

To achieve that target, companies would need to hire women for a third of all vacant positions.

Lord Davies said: "Corporate Britain is in the last chance saloon. I won't be recommending quotas to the Government, as the best solution is one of natural evolution. It's fixable if everyone gets engaged. But if companies don't take a radical change in attitude, and hire more women at the top, then we will have to introduce quotas."

However, imposing quotas would be illegal without changes to last year's Equality Act.

He added: "We want and need more female talent at the top of business. It's fair and good for the bottom line. It's total rubbish to suggest there aren't enough women to fill the positions. The problem is, chairmen blame the head-hunters, the head-hunters blame the chairmen and everyone blames the shareholders. We have to change this attitude."

Among the report's main points are:

t that the Financial Reporting Council, the City's corporate watchdog, to look at introducing a "comply or explain" measure which firms would have to respond to in their annual reports. The FRC, chaired by Baroness Hogg, is due to make its own statement once the report is published.

t that the targets are supported by investors, represented by the Association of British Insurers, and industry, represented by the CBI, whose president-to-be, Sir Roger Carr, supports more women on boards.

t that some of the country's top search firms, including Egon Zehnder International and Julia Budd's Zygos group, have agreed to establish a "best practice" code to be used by recruiters to provide a deeper pool of women.

If firms don't move fast, said Lord Davies, it will take another 70 years before companies reach the point of having women as half of their directors. "We've got to speed up," he said.

Lord Davies has drawn on the experience of Australia where, after introducing targets and a "comply or explain" requirement, the number of female appointments increased by a third. Over the past three years the number of women non-executive and executive directors on FTSE-100 companies has stayed at around 13 per cent. Of FTSE-250 companies, only half have any women at all on their boards.

"When you think that 50 per cent of all graduates are women and they make up 46 per cent of the workforce, this is terrible," said Lord Davies.

Professor Susan Vinnicombe of Cranfield's International Centre for Women Leaders, and a member of Davies' steering committee, said: "I fear Lord Davies is walking a tightrope because there is still a closed, informal network of chairmen and search firms who shoe-horn in candidates who are like themselves."