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Are quotas needed to ensure gender balance in the boardroom?

The UK Government argues that a "voluntary approach" to addressing the gender imbalance is making significant headway. We are currently on course to see more than 25% of board appointments held by women by 2015, without the need to resort to legislation, it claims.

However, in my industry, hospitality, where nearly 60% of the workforce is female, only 6% of director-level positions are held by women.Thankfully, our industry is working hard to improve this. 

Companies that are doing better in addressing the gender imbalance tend to be those that prioritise gender diversity in their recruitment, training and development strategies. The motivation for this is rooted in sound business sense. There are three well-documented commercial reasons why diversity is good for business.

First, the competition for talent is fiercer than ever – so in order to secure the best talent you need to be prepared to consider all the available candidates, not just the male half of the population.

Second, research has repeatedly demonstrated that businesses perform better as the diversity of their leadership team grows.

And third, according to the Centre for Talent Innovation, diversity stimulates creativity and innovation while homogenous groups of decision-makers will often crush such originality. Since innovation is what will determine whether a company survives and prospers in the long term, that is what we should strive for.

Balance is important; the odd successful woman here and there is far from ideal and generates its own problems. I firmly believe that women in senior positions need other women in senior positions in order to create a support and learning network. Without this, they will learn and adopt their leadership behaviours from the men that surround them. As a result, to all intents and purposes, they may become surrogate men.

Evidence from Women 1st has shown that, with the right training, mentoring and support, women flourish. Over the past three years, Women 1st has helped over 800 women in the UK's hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism sectors make progress in their careers. The progress has been remarkable and I saw for myself, at the inaugural Women 1st Conference, what a real, practical difference this programme has made.

Interestingly we find that, by and large, women do not want legislation in this area. They want progression and recognition because they have earned and deserve it – not because some official in Brussels has declared that they need to make up the numbers. Many women also find the idea of gender quotas somewhat distasteful, because it suggests some fundamental inadequacy in a woman's ability to achieve on her own merit alone.

The business and social argument is a powerful one and should, logically, stimulate a behavioural change in its own right – quotas should not be required. But is the argument winning? Is change happening and is it happening fast enough?

I am not convinced it is. Part of the reason for this is that, in my own experience, most men behave decently in the workplace and are completely unaware how some of their behaviours may be unhelpful in promoting gender equality. For example, a male manager looking to promote a man may say: 'Chuck him in at the deep end and let's see if he sinks or swims.' The same manager may say of a female candidate: 'Is she ready yet? We don't want to set her up to fail.' Words said with the best of intentions without any malevolence – and, arguably, stated by a very well-mannered man – but the impact on the progression of the two careers is clear.

One way of addressing this might be to conduct comprehensive research to identify the most common 'unhelpful behaviours' and invest in a substantial education campaign. Even then, I am not convinced it would work and if we got it wrong we could end up with a whole generation of indifferent and unsympathetic businessmen.

We also need to bear in mind that the reason for the gender gap is more complex than we acknowledge. Yes, there are the male behavioural issues, but there are other factors. Some women choose not to pursue a career because they find themselves in a position where they can make that life choice. Lucky them. I know lots of men who would love to take the same option, but simply can't afford to. So if women are the ones with the choices, the ones choosing not to pursue careers and the quorum of senior, female 'contenders' is absent because they are not rising through the ranks in sufficient numbers – how else do we accelerate change?

Unilever is an extremely diverse organisation in terms of its ethnic and cultural make-up and while female representation is comparatively good on our board, there is more work to be done to get our gender mix to where we want it to be. We are in fact, increasingly employing a new business model that recognises the critical role that women play and which relies for its success on the qualities and capabilities more often associated with women. Unilever uses tools such as a diversity board chaired by the CEO and by a requirement that the shortlist for each senior job should include a woman.

Over the past five years, the proportion of women in senior positions has increased and more than 50% of our graduate recruits are women. In principle, the pipeline is being filled, but our task is to ensure many more reach the top levels. We are making progress because we have an objective and have created a rule to enable us to achieve it. Our recruitment partners have learnt that, in order to successfully work with us, they have to find suitable female candidates.

As an organisation, we are on a diversity journey and making headway, but there is rigour in our method and it is this rigorous approach in pursuit of gender balance that industry needs to embrace. If it doesn't, then legislation, which will leave no doubt as to what is expected of business, will inevitably come to pass.

Tracey Rogers (pictured) is managing director of Unilever Food Solutions UK & Ireland and a mentor for Women 1st, the thought leadership programme for the UK's hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism industry