Deutsche Bank's Josef Ackermann's deliciously impertinent comments that having women on company boards would make them more feminine, more "colourful and more beautiful" has caught the world on the hop and both sexes gasping at his gall.
In Germany, Silvana Koch-Mehrin of the FDU-EU told Handelsblatt: "If Mr Ackermann wants more colour in the executive committee he should hang some paintings on the wall."
Speaking from Oslo, Benja Stig Fagerland, the businesswoman who helped the Norwegian government to get half of its board positions filled by women, said she didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She decided to laugh, adding: "Although there are a lot of men using this pretty argument to hide their fear that there are some bright women coming into business who are challenging their competencies."
In Britain, Heather Jackson, the head of the 2 Per Cent Club and the Women's Business Forum, took a more sardonic approach. "I'm sure Mr Ackermann was suggesting that there would be more colourful and constructive debate if he had more women. But we mustn't trivialise such an important issue at such a sensitive time."
The German banker has a reputation for putting his foot in it: while facing trial over charges of breach of trust in connection with Vodafone's takeover of Mannesmann, Mr Ackermann got caught on camera after the trial doing a victory sign with his fingers. He was forced into a humbling apology. But this time the head of one of the world's biggest banks – which doesn't have any women on its Vorstand – has put his fingers up to half the population and is unlikely to be so easily forgiven.
He made the remarks while being asked his view on Germany's proposal for a mandatory quota for women on boards. German ministers want 30 per cent of executive positions in the country's biggest companies to be filled by women, beginning in 2013; it's a move which the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, says she's against but the opinion polls show it has popular support. At present, only 2.2 per cent of executive positions are held by women in DAX 100 companies.
But, tearing away the headlines, what Mr Ackermann actually said was far more interesting than the hype and should endear him to womankind, for he also said that having more women on boards is good for the "bottom line". And it's this fact, that more women on top does impact the bottom line, that has given this latest drive for more women in business some serious traction.
And not just in Germany. Governments in France, Spain and Italy are looking at whether quotas should be made compulsory, while the EU is still deciding on whether to impose its own mandatory ones. In Britain, David Cameron has made a big play for the corporate female, appointing Labour peer Lord Davies of Abersoch to look into what can be done to change the status quo.
So far, Lord Davies has resisted quotas as the tool for making those changes. But if the former banker, who will be presenting the findings of his inquiry on 24 February, doesn't go for quotas, he will have to come up with alternative measures to make substantial change without them. For the reality is that the numbers haven't budged over the past 20 years – still only 11 per cent of FTSE 100 directors are women.
And it's to Norway that everyone is looking for a role-model. Since introducing quotas some six years ago, the country has been flooded with delegations from across Europe investigating what has been achieved and drawing lessons from the results. Even David Cameron likes the Norwegian approach – at a recent Nordic Summit in London he said how interesting he found the Norwegian experience and admired the country's social egalitarianism. Whether he wants to go as far as quotas, though, we may soon discover.
What's novel about the Norwegians is that they don't see gender equality as a feminist issue but one of human capital. The country has a long history of social equality and strong women leaders, in politics as well as the public sector. In a country where 80 per cent of women work and childcare is superb, there has been a 40 per cent quota for public committees since 1985. This target was met by 1997, and today, women hold 44 per cent of positions across the public sector. All political parties – apart from the Progressives – have rules requiring between 40 and 50 per cent of each gender on electoral lists and about half of all ministers in Norwegian cabinets are women.
And it was a Conservative minister of trade, Ansgard Gabrielsen, who first argued a decade ago that having more women in the private sector would be good for business. He went on to push through compulsory quotas in 2005 for publicly listed companies to have a minimum of 33 per cent of each sex on their boards. Companies were given three years to introduce the quota and the numbers speak for themselves: in 2003, 7.3 per cent of board members were women; by 2006, 21 per cent and today nearly half. The quota applies only to the 500 companies listed on the Oslo stock exchange and to public companies with boards of more than 10 people but not private ones.
Stig Fagerland, 40, is the former IT expert who was first asked to advise Norway's business organisation, the NHO, and then the government, on how to find and prepare women for the boardroom. "The first step I took was to have a new rhetoric," she said. "This was not about gender or equality or diversity but about human talent and how we could release half of that female talent which was there, but hidden away. At first, company bosses all complained they couldn't find the right women, so what I did was ask all Norway's top companies like Statoil, Esso, Kvaerner and Norsk Skog to nominate their brightest female talent. Then with this list of women I was able to go to the chief executives and show them who was available."
Her project, Female Future, caught on like wildfire and over the past few years the quotas in Norway's boardrooms have been filled, more or less with genuine agreement from both sexes. "What we are seeing now is that there are some really motivated. bright women who are challenging the competencies of the old guard," Ms Fagerland said. "Some of them don't like it but our research shows that our companies are more dynamic and innovative. Women are in many ways more modern in outlook and they are not afraid to confront."
But there are some teething problems. "About 70 or so top women each hold several positions and the same women are going around the companies. In some cases, they are not encouraging the younger women to come forward as much as they could. That's a problem, and it's being tackled. We call them the 'golden shirts'," she said.
Opinion in Britain is still deeply divided over whether quotas are the best way forward, with those arguing against that a target is "demeaning" because women want to be judged on their merits and not because of numbers. Heather Jackson, whose 2 Per Cent club has more than 90 members and has helped to promote women on to companies throughout Yorkshire, prefers collaboration to quotas. "Women don't want to know they made it because they are in a numbers game. What women need most of all is confidence – self-belief. When will a woman stand up at the end of a meeting and say she has to go to her son's sports day? We don't, but the men do, and everyone coos and says what good fathers they are. Until women are more honest, more confident, we won't get anywhere."
Yet all the research shows, says Jackson, that having more than three women on company boards is a "tipping point" which can be shown to improve a company's performance and that's what she wants to hammer home. But it's precisely this that makes Ms Fagerland want to cry: "Why should women wait? It would have taken 200 years of slow change to get to where we are in Norway if we hadn't had quotas. They are a tool to help business get even better talent. Prejudice is a luxury we can't afford."
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