It's offensive to say that promoting women into top positions too quickly would be a liability to companies

Quotas and competitiveness are not mutually exclusive


I was delighted to see Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna make the case for diversity quotas this week. Chuka spoke out against the “continued existence of a glass ceiling for women and ethnic minorities,” and said that if elected Labour would consider “more prescriptive measures.”

For too long the default position in the UK has been to oppose quotas. This is justified on the flawed grounds that quotas would “damage competitiveness”, with fanciful figures about the “business cost” thrown around. The implication – that getting women into the boardroom too quickly would be a liability to companies – is as unfounded as it’s offensive. But it’s an idea that seems to have stuck. As a result the debate is often framed as a case of ‘Competitiveness Vs Fairness’ – with only the most hand-wringing lefties advocating the latter.

At last this seems to be changing. On top of former Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman Trevor Phillips, who this week said Britain was moving too slowly, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, admitted last month that quotas for women may be necessary as a catalyst for change. And with Lloyds Bank implementing a 40 per cent target for women in senior management – on the grounds that diversity and prosperity go together – there’s a growing consensus that in future companies’ top brass will need to be robustly pluralist.

The body of supporting evidence is beyond question. Boardroom equality for women, for example, improves decision-making, risk reduction and the striking of deals – and, indeed, has been shown to boost share price. Quite simply, companies do best when their boards reflect their customer base. There is, therefore, a huge business imperative to promote women and other minorities. Firms that do reap the rewards.

So, if we accept the core premise that diversity at the top is not only fair but is also likely to improve economic performance – as most businesses and politicians claim to – then why not start making changes sooner rather than later? Why not be more open to quotas? I appreciate that, so to speak, there is more than one way to skin a cat. But in my view most cultural shifts do not happen in splendid isolation.

Other countries recognise this better than we do. The European Parliament recently voted in favour of a 40 per cent target for women on boards by 2020, and last year quotas were adopted in Germany. They have already accelerated the pace of change in Holland, France and Italy, and would help UK businesses bring about a virtuous circle more quickly. Even Japanese premier Shinzu Abe – an economic liberal governing a country with a very patriarchal tradition – acknowledged at the start of the year the need to take affirmative action. He’s set the target of 30 per cent by 2020.

By falling back on the false ideological assumption that all interference in the market is bad, those who oppose quotas actually weaken the competitiveness of the UK economy. Most people now accept the economic benefits of making our boards more representative, and most evidence suggests countries with more diverse business cultures will in the long term be more successful. Why drag our heels and let the rest of Europe get there first?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam