Merryn Somerset Webb: I’m in favour of quotas

I am speaking at my school’s old girls’ day this week. I am flattered, but I also wonder why, given that I was lucky enough to go to one of the best girls’ schools in the country, that it was me they asked.

It is not that I have not done well. I am editor-in-chief of the UK’s best-selling financial magazine; I write a variety of columns; I appear on a television show on the UK’s Channel 4 on Wednesday nights; and I have just taken on my first non-executive position, for an investment trust. So I’m doing OK. But I’m not running the country, in charge of a FTSE 100 company or managing a £20bn hedge fund. And I’m not even based in a glass building in a capital city – I work four days a week from a basement in Edinburgh.

The fact that I’m making the speech suggests there are not that many visible women at the top of the corporate tree. An interesting statistic I saw recently showed that the better educated a woman is, the less likely she is to work. It may sound counterintuitive, but think about it.

To become well educated, women go to great universities. There they meet clever men. Both get good jobs and do well. Then they have kids. They can afford to have one career between them, and the truth is that one really big career usually takes the work of both partners. So the woman stops working. It explains why practically none of the women I was at school and university with have high-profile careers.

Add that to the fact that even women who need or want to keep working often take career breaks for their children – and that as often as possible they lay down rules about getting home for bath-time – and it also helps explain why they are not board directors as often as men. Only 12.5 per cent of the directors of FTSE 100 companies are women, according to the latest Cranfield report on this subject. Cut out the non-executive directors, and that number comes down to 5.5 per cent. And, the report says, they make up only 17.5 per cent of the pipeline of candidates.

There has been a long debate about whether we should be working to change that. Those who say we should force a change cite a McKinsey report, Women Matter, that claims that once there is a critical mass of 30 per cent women on a board or in senior management, you get “the best financial results”. However, there have been many studies into this and the results are mixed: some say having women matters; others disagree.

In spite of all this, whether having women on boards helps financial performance has become academic: there is now a general view that it is a good thing and that it should happen more. The only question is how it happens – targets or quotas?

Most women will tell you they prefer targets. I prefer quotas. Why? Women are not on boards for the reasons I mention above. But bath-time and family commitments alone might not fully explain why we do not put in the hours needed to get to director level. It may also be that we think whatever we do will never be quite enough. Nearly three-quarters of women questioned for a recent Institute of Leadership and Management survey said the glass ceiling still existed. Only 38 per cent of men agreed.

Add the perceived glass ceiling to the idea that the executive world really is an old boys’ club (one in which men of a certain age can think only of other men to invite on to the board) and you can see why women might not be bothered.

So if we want women to be on boards, we need to make it clear that if they make the effort to fulfil the requirements, they will get their just rewards. Targets will not do for this. The very word is too feeble to stick. We have to have quotas – proper coercive quotas. That way women who get themselves board-ready will know they will end up on a board. Job done.

Merryn Somerset Webb is editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek

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