Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Was 2010 a watershed year for women in business?

January 2011

One 2010 trend that could easily have been identified by our CSR experts on page nine of this issue was the striking rise up the business and political agenda of the idea that we need more women in top management.

It's an item that has long languished in the pending tray. But last year the view that 'boardrooms should harness the talents of the many, not just the few' - to quote Helen Alexander, president of the Confederation of British Industry - appeared to have acquired critical mass. Several western governments have put their shoulder to the wheel. Following Norway's example, the French have drafted a law that, if passed, would require women in five years' time to occupy 40 per cent of the seats on company boards. Spanish legislators have already approved regulations that from 2015 will demand the same. And other jurisdictions have turned up the political rhetoric several notches.

The sense that the 'glass ceiling' needs to be decisively broken is not confined to governments, however. In November, for instance, seven UK-based chairmen of large corporations founded the 30% Club, with the aim of pushing for at least 30 per cent female representation on UK boards by 2015. Behind this initiative, as behind other recent public pronouncements by business leaders on the topic, may be the fear that regulation is about to take the matter out of their hands. But it would also be fair to say that, despite some continued dissent, the need for concrete action is now broadly recognized.

Quotas are not a panacea - in Norway, the legislative route has not, at least in the short term, produced the dramatic progress on female representation at board level that the politicians had hoped for. Mandating targets does not, in and of itself, overcome a history of discrimination that has engendered a dearth of suitable female board candidates at senior management level. Nor are voluntary programmes, such as the 30% Club, guaranteed to produce more effective results. There have been many well-meaning, well-resourced initiatives in the corporate responsibility field that have made but slow, if steady, progress.

So what seems sensible is a two-pronged approach: government-imposed quotas that concentrate the mind, combined with business-led moves to adapt implementation to the particular circumstances of each industry. The common objective is to spread a new corporate governance culture, supported by the collective will of the business world that women must fully share in the running of it. What happened in 2010 allows us to entertain the hope that in retrospect it will be considered a landmark year in this direction.

Peter Mason | Global | Equality

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