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Reporter's afterthought


Reporter's afterthought


Could gender quotas hit London’s financial hub?

When putting together this report it was virtually mission impossible to track down companies to talk to about the issue of gender quotas. I suspect many of them are nervous about the prospect of European legislation that would force them to have 40 percent women on their boards. Even those companies that I approached who do have a reasonable number of women on their boards preferred not to talk about it. “They are not on our boards because they are women,” said one senior male manager. “They would not want to be cast in that light either. We don’t care if it’s a man or a woman sitting on our board.” But in many countries there are companies that have no women at all on boards or in senior management, with some bosses continuing to argue that they cannot find “capable” candidates and that analysing the gender of their workers is not necessary. They may stick to that argument, but the powers that be in many countries are not buying it. The lack of women in top jobs is unacceptable, they say.

This made me think about London. What will be the result of quotas in one of the world’s major financial hubs? Lord Davies has just released his independent review into women on boards. He is recommending that UK listed companies in the FTSE 100 should be aiming for a minimum of 25% women on boards by 2015 and that FTSE 350 companies should set their own targets. He expects that “many will achieve a much higher figure than this minimum”. This may be overly optimistic, especially in a city where men still dominate in the business world. But the British Prime Minister has become another force for those in favour of radical change and business leaders can no longer put the subject in the too-hard basket. If they don’t act, someone else will, whether it’s the politicians in Britain or politicians in Europe.

David Cameron says he is not ruling out quotas, which has made many business people in London nervous. He says he wants there to be a bigger push towards having more women on boards, preferably without resorting to quotas. But he has made it clear this would be an option if nothing changes. The prime minister has been quoted as saying that 30% is a likely target for women on UK boards. “If we fail to unlock the potential of women in the labour market, we’re not only failing those individuals, we’re failing our whole economy,” said Cameron.

But, as one of the people I interviewed pointed out, the problem is not just on company boards. What about the layers of senior management in companies, where there is also a big lack of female talent? Finland is held up as a gender equality role model by some, but at the same time there is only one female CEO of a major listed firm in Finland. And only 26 out of 900 people in line management are women. Some people I spoke to said quotas should in fact be brought in across all areas of business, not just on the company boards. Now wouldn’t that put the cat among the pigeons in London!

By Seamus Kearney.

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