Quotas for boardroom women all but ruled out

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The Independent Online

The former banker investigating ways to get more women executives appointed to Britain's boardrooms will today give his strongest indication yet that quotas have been ruled out.

Lord Davies of Abersoch, who is carrying out a review for the Government, will say: "Quotas have proved successful in some countries but many of the women I have spoken with are against these. I have not ruled them out as a recommendation but at the moment I am not convinced they are right method to encourage progress."

The peer, an ex-chief executive of Standard Chartered who served as Minister of State for Trade, Promotion and Investment under the previous Labour administration, was appointed in August by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, to develop a strategy to increase the numbers of female directors of UK-listed companies. His report is expected in February.

Although controversial, the idea of quotas has proved successful – most notably for getting more women MPs elected by the Labour Party with its all-female shortlists. It also has support from campaign groups lobbying for gender equality – notably the Fawcett Society, which points to the dramatic effect quotas have had in Norway. The Scandinavian country was the first to demand boardroom quotas for women, and saw female representation soar from 6 per cent to 44 per cent between 2002 and 2008.

Lord Davies's words could therefore come as a disappointment. He will say: "Female executives need to be recognised for the talent and skills they possess. I know there is a multitude of women ready for board appointments but, from the conversations I have had, it seems the root of the problem may be accessing this pool of talent. There is no hard evidence of a lack of female talent, whilst I have heard some old-fashioned chairmen suggest this."

To remedy this he will suggest imposing a "code of practice" on headhunters charged with recruiting board-level staff. Other initiatives could include establishing a group of 35 to 40 executives to play a "counselling role" for potential female appointees. Lord Davies has also considered the creation of an "academy" to identify successful businesswomen, train them as potential boardroom candidates and match them with a existing company chairman or woman to mentor them.

However, critics remain sceptical. Brendan Barber, the general-secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: "These proposals fall well short of the action needed to address the shortage of women in the boardroom. Lord Davies rightly says there is no lack of talent when it comes to female executives and acknowledges the success of quota systems abroad, and then all but rules the proposal out. The review is upbeat about the corporate sector leading the reform of the UK's boardroom culture. Past experience suggests this optimism is woefully naïve."

In its Female FTSE report earlier this year, the School of Management at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire also criticised the lack of progress being made. It described 2010 as "another year of barely perceptible change in the representation of women in leadership positions at Britain's top 100 companies".

It found that only three more women had joined FTSE 100 boards during the year, bringing the total to 116, and only one was an executive director.