The EU: Boarder Control or Not?

EU proposes 40% mandatory seats for womenThe EU is not a gender issue. Women’s life styles and freedoms are more influenced by circumstances, culture and opportunity than whether or not we remain part of the European Union.

However, the one matter which is strongly relevant is the following: The EU wants to impose a quota of 40 per cent of women on all boards for leading companies listed within the EU, but the issue has been blocked. In the UK, cross party belief is that his should be a matter for the country to decide, not Brussels, full stop.

There are obviously too few women at board level for the gender fairness required of our enlightened age. But how we change this, if indeed we want to, is what this proposed legislation is about. It can be quite divisive a topic. No one way street. Quotas either promote women’s interests or damage them.

On February 12th the topic of women on boards catalysed a networking event organised by Anita Balchandani. The evening was a collaboration by the Women2Win, a group of Conservative Party members who want to help promote female talent into public life and the management consultancy team of which Anita is a partner, European-founded strategy firm OCC, whose London office is in New Street Square in the City.

`You can legislate all you like, but it doesn’t change how you think,’  Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management and Founder of the 30% Club.

All the speakers, introduced by Jackie Stevenson, a partner in the London branch of Brooklyn Brothers, were in agreement with one fact. Quotas are the quickest and most effective way to turn figures around. But was it the right way?

There is no sliding out of a quota. In fact, just the threat of one can have the desired effect. (Which may well be enough for some). One of the audience members, and few participants in favour of affirmative action, insisted that regulations were the only way to get the job done. With boards very often made up old chums from good schools, or elitist political circles, there’s some mileage in that fact.

Another, an ex-Army Officer, was honest enough to relate her career success to gender equality legislation.

So too did Therese Coffey MP, who added good humouredly `If it hadn’t been for David Cameron’s 50/50 policy, there may well have been a `little male me as a member of Parliament for Suffolk Coastal’ in 2010.'

Of course the arguments against, which journalist Helen Loveless alluded to with great warmth, focussed on forced quotas meaning discrimination against young men, many of whom have been underperforming women in education recently. (Who also may not have had the advantage in life of `the right school’, or career opportunity to make board level.) Also, that constant talk about fast tracking for women had the tendency to portray them as victims, and undermine those who had risen on talents alone.

There is no doubt that women are inspired to greater achievement by female success stories. But they tend to cherry pick their goals, which fluctuate with age and personal circumstance. And, that not every woman desires the pressure-cooker commitment of a full-on Footsie 100 style career.

As Meg Lustman, the MD for Warehouse put it, `My industry is 95% women, and I am the only female director. But many of my colleagues do not envisage Board Room level as part of where they want to go.’

Therefore the consensus of the gathering was that what was basically required to get to the top, aside from ability and the right opening, was the will to invest fully, mentally and emotionally, in a corporate career in the first place.

The opportunity side of things is what the 30% Club is working on. A group of industry women and supporting Chairmen and organisations, they are committed to achieving 30% female representation on FTSE boards by 2015. And they are making real progress, looking at how this can be achieved, aiming for co-operation rather than coercion. The freshness women bring to a workplace situation that has previously excluded them, is fact .

So it is now beginning to make good 2013 corporate sense to have more women. The proof is there. The number of female execs is up, and set to rise even further.

`Our belief is, the more women join boards without the imposition of quotas, the more they can demonstrate the value they can add. By the time we get 30% the system will be self-perpetuating,' says Helen Morrissey.

Quotas work dramatically, but they also have consequential recourse. And though that point wasn’t raised during the evening, I got the sense that the group was perspicacious enough to realise it is not a disadvantage-free move. By the end of the meeting, it was a strong win for `no quotas’.

The mystery of women’s personality gives rise to cravings which extend way beyond the boardroom. My personal view is that these cannot be fully satisfied by any quota system that the European Union or national governments can dictate.     Louise Burfitt-Dons

But that philosophical muse is another subject for debate.       

Louise is currently seeking selection as Conservative MEP for London 2014. Check out her website on louise4london.com . Check out my manifesto on working with London's women.

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