Margareta Pagano: You really think tokenism works?

A call from leading businessmen completely misses the point

I feel as though I've stepped back into the dark ages. First came the news that David Cameron had hired spin-mistresses to help capture more women voters. Then a group of really tip-top British all-male industrialists wrote to a national newspaper this week calling for more women to join the boards of our big companies in such a desperate tone that it reminded me of those war-time conscription adverts: "Your Country Needs You."

What the 17 businessmen, all part of the FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme, wrote was this: "We are living in extraordinary times, and extraordinary times call for innovative solutions."

There's more: "Business leaders have spoken out on the need for action on climate change and poverty; it is time to do the same on gender."

Is that it? Are women to be considered "innovative solutions," like the clean nuclear option to global warming?

These businessmen mean well. But they have missed the point entirely. Most of the women I know in business, government and academia will find this approach deeply insulting, as well as patronising. The reason there are so few senior women is simple.

For years women have been prejudiced against in business. Instead, they have chosen to make a living via other, often more creative and flexible, routes. It's no coincidence that so many women start their own businesses which have an extremely high rate of success. Why on earth would they want to work flat-out for a huge corporation?

Working in the corporate world as an executive of BP or a Tesco is demanding and exhausting. The travel, long hours and then dinners, drinks or evening meetings – as most of the men do as part of the male-bonding – doesn't fit well with a full family life. I'm not saying women can't take this, some do and they love it, but most don't want to. That's why the gene pool of top women to choose from is so small.

There's a danger that pushing women into senior positions through positive discrimination or quotas will make matters worse because standards will slip. Women don't want tokenism. When the broadcaster Anna Ford made it on to the board of Sainsbury's a few years ago, all hell broke loose in the supermarket's group. Understandably, the senior women working below the board were furious that Ford got such a plum job without any apparent credentials other than her shopping habits. What these senior women do want, however, is the knowledge that there are no barriers to the top should that be where they choose to go.

If this group truly wishes to promote female talent they should take a mirror to their own companies. They should look more closely at the way they work, if they are doing all they can to encourage their own female executives and whether they can improve the culture to make it more attractive to women with, or without, families. Let's be honest, most men still can't bear the idea of women "working from home", even one day a week.

And Cameron? He doesn't need these PR ladies from PrettyLittleHead to help him attract the "middle-class mothers" that he is supposedly after. Instead, he should spend more time in bed talking to his charming wife and entrepreneur, Samantha. She will tell him that tax incentives, reducing regulations, lifting the VAT threshold for small business plus other measures to improve starting your own enterprise are the best way to a girl's heart.