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Labour moots quotas for women and ethnic minorities

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A Labour government could introduce quotas for women and ethnic minorities to address inequalities within boardrooms, the shadow business secretary has said.

Chuka Umunna’s comments followed the publication of new research into the number of senior posts currently held by women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK.

The study, by recruitment consultancy Green Park, found that of the FTSE 100's 289 senior posts, including chairman, chief executives or chief financial officers, only 12 were filled by women and 10 by ethnic minorities.

Umunna said that while non-executive appointments in recent years had seen improvements in terms of equality, progress on executive positions had been “lamentable”.

“It is clear there is a pipeline of women and ethnic minority candidates, achieving the highest qualifications, who are available for the top jobs and merit appointment, but not nearly enough of them make it through,” he said.

“If we do not see enough progress on increasing diversity in our boardrooms, we would consider introducing more prescriptive measures, such as quotas, in a future Labour government.

“Increasing diversity adds to our international competitiveness as boards make better decisions where a range of voices drawing on different life experiences can be heard. This is particularly important as the UK seeks to win business in a global, multicultural market place.”

Heather Jackson, the founder and CEO of An Inspirational Journey – an organisation dedicated to supporting women on boards – disagreed with Umunna.

She questioned whether a pipeline of women and ethnic minority candidates did exist, and warned that without this quotas would be “a cosmetic, reactive solution”.

“If you’re going to set quotas, you’ve got to be sure you’ve got the talent pool of capable, skilled, meritocratic talent ready and able, whether it be gender or ethnicity,” Jackson said.

“If Umunna knows he’s got all that talent there – good on him. But I don’t believe it’s there at this moment and that it’s board-ready.

“Concentrating on quotas in the boardroom is not going to resolve the issue of developing the talent that we need to see. Companies have to set targets throughout the middle management structure, and make sure they are growing talent at that stage rather than having to bring it in from the outside.”

Race for Opportunity national campaign director Sandra Kerr, who campaigns for more balanced and proportionate representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people at all workforce levels, agreed quotas would not solve inequalities at board levels.

“We wouldn't pre-empt a review with a call for quotas, as this alone would not tackle the challenge of employers building diversity into their talent pipelines, which Race for Opportunity knows is of equal importance,” she said.

“Today’s report shows that many organisations’ boards don’t represent the communities they operate in, which is reflected in Race for Opportunity’s own research.

“One in four primary school children come from a BAME background, but just one in 16 FTSE 100 board members are BAME.

“We have seen many organisations make considerable strides to increase gender equality on boards following the publication of the Davies review, and would welcome similar action being taken on ethnic diversity.”

Kerr called for all political parties and businesses to show leadership on improving BAME representation.

The Davies review, published in February 2011, recommends that UK listed companies in the FTSE 100 should aim for a minimum of 25% female board member representation by 2015.