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Boardroom quotas for women a ‘blunt instrument’

Norway, which does have a 40 per cent quota for women on boards, has seen the rise of so-called ‘trophy directors’ or ‘golden skirts’ and yet still does not have a sustainable pipeline of women to fill executive positions – warns Marina Yannakoudakis MEP

When a joint meeting of the European Parliament Women’s Rights and Legal Affairs Committees voted overwhelmingly in favour of proposals for European Union quotas for women on boards in October, I must admit that I was more than a little disappointed. Most of the female MEPs to whom I have spoken – including those on the EP Women’s Rights Committee – do not believe in quotas. They recognise that something needs to be done but cannot see any options other than legislation.

Quotas are a blunt instrument that, while addressing the problem of women in non-executive positions on company boards, does not tackle the broader question of how to get more females involved at every level of business – including at the executive level. I was at least pleased that the only one of my amendments adopted by the committees was on the important issue of the ‘pipeline’ of board-ready women.

We cannot just parachute women into boards and expect there to be a trickle-down effect to other levels of business. Norway, which does have a 40 per cent quota for women on boards, has seen the rise of so-called ‘trophy directors’ or ‘golden skirts’; businesswomen like Mimi Berdel who, at one point, was on the board of 90 different companies. In spite of quotas for non-execs, Norway still does not have a sustainable pipeline of women to fill executive positions. And the number of senior women and female chief executives is lower than the European-wide average.

I organised a hearing in the European Parliament in September to bring together successful British businesswomen and have them talk about their own personal experiences, and how we can achieve the objective of getting more women in business without the sledgehammer approach of top-down quotas.

One of the speakers was Heather McGregor who runs a recruitment company. She gives advice and training to women about how to position themselves for senior positions in business. It was clear from the hearing that women need to be supported at different stages of their career. Women are much more likely to take career breaks than men, not only to have children but if their husband relocates to another country or if they need to take care of elderly relatives. They need guidance and a strategy to help them get through that period and come out on the other side, and remain on a career path.

Another of the speakers at the hearing was Helena Morrissey who, as the mother of nine children and a fund manager named as the most influential woman in European asset management, is living proof that professional breaks need not have an adverse effect on a woman’s career.

Morrissey and McGregor are both founding members of the UK’s 30 per cent Club. It is an organisation that works with companies, especially chairmen, to encourage boardroom diversity. In the United Kingdom, the voluntary approach is working and British businesses are already likely to exceed British Prime Minister David Cameron’s target of 25 per cent female directors by 2015. Over a quarter of appointments to boards are now women. A voluntary approach to encourage companies to appoint women to executive and non-executive directorships must work hand-in-hand with improving the pipeline below board level – and to widen the talent pool available to business and that is what the 30 per cent Club is encouraging.

When the whole European Parliament votes on the EU proposals in Strasbourg this month, I hope that MEPs will have the courage to vote against the plans for compulsory quotas – not because women do not deserve a seat at the table but because women deserve better than to be patronised and pandered to. No woman that I know would ever want to be called a golden skirt. We have a serious problem to address but quotas are not a solution that will deliver lasting or meaningful change on the boardrooms of Europe.

Marina Yannakoudakis is an MEP for London and Conservative Party spokesperson for women’s rights in the European Parliament

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