It’s six months since Lord Davies published his Women on Boards report and 23 companies, including Reckitt Benckiser, have appointed female directors in that time. But, despite Lord Davies urging FTSE 100 companies to sign up to a voluntary target of 25% female board representation by 2015, almost two-thirds of businesses are “fundamentally opposed” to any form of voluntary quota, according to research by Cass Business School and recruitment firm Search Consultancy.
More than half of them are also against another of Lord Davies’ recommendations: that headhunters draw up a voluntary code of conduct ensuring diverse talent is pushed for senior positions. Headhunters themselves seem more supportive of the measure, with 19 of the top executive search firms last month agreeing that longlists should contain almost a third of female candidates.
It’s tempting to see the business response as the old boy network protecting its own, but most business leaders are not intrinsically against women on their boards they just do not want to play the numbers game.
Of course, there are some Neanderthals out there. I, for one, am sick of hearing the maternity argument. The gap between the best and worst companies in this area is huge. It’s also worth remembering that for much of history women and men have both worked. The separation has only been the norm for the past century.
However, I sympathise with the anti-quota sentiment mostly because, as a woman, I would hope I would reach the top on merit. But the facts speak for themselves and it seems nothing will happen without a kick-start.
That is why I was interested to see Morrisons ask its suppliers to increase the number of women reaching senior management in their own companies. At its latest supplier conference, it asked attendees to set targets, create a clear plan to ensure more women can reach leadership positions and share best practice.
Morrisons HR director Norman Pickavance says the strategy makes good business sense for the retailer, whose customers are 70% female. The company itself has set a target of 30% women in its senior management group within three years. “We have to work together. We want our suppliers to be tuned into this strategy,” he says.
Morrisons is showing great leadership in this area and not a moment too soon. Next month, Lord Davies and business secretary Vince Cable hope to see FTSE 350 publish their aims, having urged them to set challenging targets for female representation on their boards. It will be interesting to see how many do I predict few. But it is better to put your own house in order. If you do not, you may well attract the heavy hand of the law.