Editor-At-Large: Men blew it. Now only quotas will do women justice

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The time has come for the blokes – and it is nearly always men – who run business in this country to change the way they operate. Every single day these men endorse discrimination on a massive scale. Change in British boardrooms isn't happening at a snail's pace, but a glacial one. Half the population, half the workforce and half of all customers are routinely passed over in the boardroom – and still our allegedly "female-friendly" government recoils from the notion of quotas.

The evidence is stark. More women than men are successful graduates. In their twenties, women earn more than men. But as they take time out to raise a family, the situation is reversed and they find it difficult to regain career momentum. From their mid-thirties, women earn less than their male counterparts. Half of all high-flying women never reach senior management posts. What a waste of all that education, all that training, all that life experience. It's like dumping hundred of gallons of precious vintage wine or liquid gold down the toilet.

Last August, Lord Davies was asked by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, and Equalities minister, Theresa May, to investigate why women weren't better represented on the boards of FTSE companies. David Cameron says he wants more women at the top – not exactly a controversial aspiration: you don't need to be a feminist to see a precious resource is being cast aside. Sadly, Davies has produced a report that will be as effective as a wet tea towel. In spite of the fact that half of all directorships are filled through personal friendships, and only 4 per cent of appointees attend a formal interview, he's not recommending strict rules to ensure boardrooms are made up of well-qualified men and women, rather than pals of the present incumbents.

Instead, he has opted for self-regulation, asking the FTSE 350 to increase the number of women on their boards to 25 per cent by 2015, and to make their recruitment methods more transparent. If business fails to deliver, only then does he threaten to impose quotas. To ensure change, he wants shareholders to monitor new appointments. That means putting our trust in the same bunch of ineffectual investors who failed to stop chief executives and senior management awarding themselves massive bonuses.

Talented women don't like quotas because it implies we need special treatment. Women aren't second-class citizens who need a helping hand to ensure they make progress up the ladder of life. We've already proved beyond doubt that we succeed at school, do well at university, relish hard work, and a high number of us seek responsible jobs and managerial roles. Then we encounter a concrete ceiling – only five FTSE-100 companies have female chief executives, and three of these superwomen are Americans who already held boardroom jobs outside the UK. At the current rate, it will take 73 years for women to achieve parity in the boardroom, so quotas, not persuasion, are the only option.

Davies discovered that only 11 per cent of businesses favour quotas. Not surprising. When everything runs in your favour – the male option –why change anything? It's cosy and it's crooked. More importantly, a McKinsey report found that businesses with large numbers of women of their boards outperformed their rivals, achieving 42 per cent more sales and 53 per cent higher return on equity. It's a no-brainer. To achieve Davies's targets, a third of all new appointments will have to go to women. You don't need to be an astrologer to understand that ain't gonna happen.

When you realise that 18 of the FTSE-100 companies have no women on their boards, in common with more than half of the FTSE 250, the scale of the problem is laid bare. It's no time for pussyfooting and threats – even Nicola Horlick, superwoman and high-flyer, now reluctantly favours quotas. Forget waiting for businessmen to change horribly ingrained ways of thinking. They need a giant kick up the backside. Cameron should chuck Davies's report in the bin and insist on quotas. Otherwise, he does not deserve a single female vote.

'South Riding' is top viewing, whatever the critics say

What's up with men of a certain age who write about television?

In The Guardian and The Independent, two chaps wearing what looks like the same dodgy floral shirt seemed to give the thumbs down to the new BBC 1 drama series South Riding. One moaned about "girls' school stuff" and "jolly hockey sticks". The other begrudgingly admitted it was "enjoyable enough if you have nothing better to watch".

Funnily enough, I haven't met a single member of the public who agrees with either of these slightly patronising curmudgeons. A long-forgotten book by Winifred Holtby that few of us will have read has been turned into delightful, Sunday night viewing by sex-meister Andrew Davies.

Anna Maxwell Martin is perfect in the lead as the ambitious new headmistress of a school in 1930s Yorkshire, and the promising subplot involves sleazy local politics and good-time girls. Of course, you could be watching Peter Kosminsky's The Promise – just the thing for a woman wanting warm-bath escapism at the end of a busy weekend.

Sarah's drippy diaries

The "intimate" memoirs of Sarah Brown turn out to be a missed opportunity and a step backwards for womankind. How can this highly intelligent woman, who graduated from Bristol University with a degree in psychology and ran a successful PR company, reduce a chronicle of her time at the centre of British politics, when our banking system went into meltdown, to lists of clothes and jewellery This is the story of a woman as doormat.

Apart from the product placement, she's so determined not to offend that her experiences often seem utterly banal. A wedding anniversary dinner in Scotland is "delicious" and Great Ormond Street hospital is "wonderful".

Stick to Twitter in future, Sarah.

Baby boomers are not to blame

The vilification of baby boomers continues – now we're the biggest polluters, according to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Its latest report says those with the biggest carbon footprint are between 50 and 64. We take more holidays, own gas-guzzling cars, and like energy-consuming gadgets. The second biggest polluters are aged 65 to 74.

According to baby boomer Tony Juniper, who used to run Friends of the Earth, we like "steak and chips, lots of flying around, and a big house", which is about half true. The commission wants us to walk more, convert to vegetarianism, go to the cinema instead of slumping on the sofa in front of a DVD – all to help the Government reach its target of reducing greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050.

Why pick on boomers? How many cabinet ministers own swimming pools and have central heating?