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Women on boards: more talk than action?

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The European Commission (EC) is “very committed to speed up progress” on gender diversity in the boardroom, according to European Parliament vice chair of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, Labour MEP, Arlene McCarthy, speaking at a conference this week on creating the next generation of women business leaders and entrepreneurs.

With just 10 days before the May 28 deadline for submissions to the public consultation on the measures needed to get more women on boards, McCarthy said the EC would analyse the feedback and look at whether to take a legislative route, such as imposing quotas, or adopt other approaches.

“Overall progress is simply too small,” McCarthy said. “A variety of instruments have been developed to enable greater diversity, such as good practice and rankings, but what is clear is that action is required.”

She added that a working paper, The Quota-instrument: different approaches across Europe, published in June 2011, “gives a flavour of what may follow the consultation”. This examined the use of legislative and voluntary quotas (http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/quota-working_paper_en.pdf).

In March, Viviane Reding, EU Justice Commissioner, launched the consultation after take-up of the Commission’s Women on Board Pledge for Europe had generated just 24 signatories from European companies. The pledge committed companies to raise female representation on their boards to 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020.

Addressing delegates at the conference, Government spokeswoman for women and equalities and whip to the Cabinet Office, Baroness Verma, said the 2011 Davies Report, Women on Boards, had resulted in the “biggest, fastest ever impact on boards”. Just nine FTSE100 boards are now all-male.

But Verma added that there was “no place for complacency. We need to demonstrate that quotas are not necessarily the only way forward. The voluntary approach can work.”

However, Janne Vangen Solheim, chief executive of underwear manufacturer Janusfabrikken in Norway, where quotas are in place, said: “Quotas work if you want radical change. There was a lot of resistance at the beginning but now it is business as usual. The business world did not implode.”

Speakers at the conference, supported by HR magazine, agreed the biggest issue was developing women into executive roles. “It’s a difficult nut to crack to develop the executive pipeline,” said Helena Morrisey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% Club.

“There is a big distinction between non-executive directors and executive directors,” added Sir Philip Hampton, chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland. “There has been rather more talk than action. We need to start to be more broadminded about stretching women into jobs and the skills required.”

BT chairman Sir Michael Rake agreed. “Companies need to take risk. Headhunters must not bring the usual candidates to the board. We need people with genuinely different experience.”