Should You Be Fast-Tracked To The Top?

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Women are still shamefully under-represented across boardrooms in the UK. Could gender quotas now be the only way to get more females in the top jobs?

Words: Kate Sullivan

We’ve earned ourselves seats in Parliament, at the highest courts in the land and in the cockpit; but take a look around your average UK boardroom table and you’ll see few women pulling up a chair.

It’s a problem that’s been on the agenda for some time; in 2010, the number of women on FTSE 100 company boards stood at just 12.5%. Soon after, a government report urged bosses to reach a minimum of 25% women on boards by 2015. Although as it’s not law there are no repercussions for not hitting this ‘recommendation’.

Although the situation has improved, it’s been stuck at 17.3% since August 2012. At the current rate it will take more than 70 years to achieve gender balance in the boardroom. Compare this with our European cousins (women currently make up almost 30% of board seats in Sweden and Finland) and it becomes clear we’re bringing up the rear.

That said, quotas aren’t altogether perfect. Some experts believe that appointing ‘token’ women would lead to them commanding less respect. Bev James, co-founder of Entrepreneurs’ Business Academy says: “Under such a system, a woman who is highly competent and qualified may start to question whether she is on the board because of her sex.” Yet, on the other hand, Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), says that although women are afraid they’ll be judged for getting ‘extra help’ in reaching positions of power, they should grab the opportunity with both hands as: “Some men have had extra help and I’d suggest it is still a case of who, rather than what you know”.

Boardroom bias is a heartland topic for Stylist. In our third issue in October 2009 we asked if the UK should follow Norway’s groundbreaking lead when it comes to enforced quotas. The fact that the issue is still undecided is frustrating, not least because we know that having women at the top makes businesses better. Companies with a third of female board members outperform rivals on profit margins by an average of 42% according to a report by services company Sodexo. “By appointing more women, companies have a more diverse workplace where traditional assumptions are challenged, leading to better products, better services and more innovation,” says André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at City University London.

But the number of women at CEO level is falling. Just three female CEOs now head up FTSE 100 companies; Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts, easyJet’s Carolyn McCall, and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco – compared with five, two years ago.

The debate as to whether quotas damage or promote women’s interests rages on. A recent study by Sage UK found fewer than 5% of business owners think quotas are the solution. But what other options do we have? We asked four industry experts for their opinion…


Mark Mills, 43, has sat on 12 company boards and set up Violet Recruitment ( specifically to get women into non-executive director roles

“Women intuitively approach business by putting people first. They make sure their clients are happy and customers are receiving a great service. With men, the starting point is always how much profit is being made. The healthiest boards have a mixture of the two, but not through force. I recruit nonexecutive directors for boards – who are not employees of the company – and it’s a job really well-suited to women because they are good at coming in and seeing the bigger picture. Admittedly, if there were quotas imposed, my recruitment business would go through the roof; but women should be getting to the top on merit, not statistics. If a better-qualified man missed out on a job because of a quota, it would be a disservice to the business. I don’t think there is as much prejudice as people make out – I’ve found most CEOs will take on the best person for the job regardless of gender.

Instead, I think women are falling behind because they’re not making it obvious that they are the best person for the job. I know from talking to women that many suffer from a lack of confidence; and while they do a good job of outlining their experience in front of the boss, men become superhuman, especially in interviews. They talk up their skills to such a degree that the boss can’t say no, and women need to adopt some of that performance attitude in the early stages. They also need to use any past rejection to spur them on, instead of deciding the board ‘isn’t for them’ after one failed attempt.”


Mimma Viglezio, 50, is a management consultant and on the board at She previously worked for Louis Vuitton and the Gucci Group

“While the fashion industry employs lots of women in HR, design and communications roles, it is still very male-managed. I remember working for Louis Vuitton and being impressed that their CFO was female. While I was at Gucci the vacant CEO role was only being suggested to men. I asked the company president why and he said he’d simply presumed qualified women weren’t interested.

Quotas may be an abrupt response but they would give overlooked women an opportunity to prove they can make companies better, and a change in attitude will hopefully follow. I’ve seen so much more discussion over a woman’s board application than a man’s, with bosses second guessing the applicant’s drive and whether she might be pregnant within the year. I’ve also witnessed employees reacting negatively to a woman being promoted – even questioning if she is ‘sleeping with someone’ to get there.

Burberry is a great example of a company that makes use of female talent, but my male colleagues doubted Angela Ahrendts in the early days. Women should embrace quotas if they are introduced and not feel diminished by getting to the board in that way. I was once offered a job in a UN institution in Geneva because they needed someone Swiss, and I didn’t think twice. It’s a step towards making women at the top become the norm.”


Labour MEP Richard Howitt, 52, is the European Parliament rapporteur on corporate social responsibility

“The current voluntary approach to get more women on boards isn’t working. There have been many warm words over several years about women breaking the glass ceiling, but without significant change. The current rate of change is just too slow. I know from the world of politics that women’s quotas are controversial, but they have been successful. In 1997, the Labour Party chose women-only shortlists ahead of the election, but if you ask people now to distinguish the female MPs who became elected in that way from the ones who didn’t, no-one could tell you. That proves it’s not about how they got there. Around 60% of university graduates in the UK are female and there are an estimated 7,000 women across Europe who are qualified to undertake board positions. So it’s not the quality of the women that is stopping the appointments, it’s the appointments system. I believe women are pushing themselves forward for the top jobs but gender discrimination in the workplace still exists.

Our economy is worse off because we deprive women of opportunities that should be theirs by right. Business associations may object to the principles of any new legislation to impose quotas – as it requires them to be transparent about their corporate responsibility – but I believe if they are introduced, in time we will look back and realise it was a necessary intervention.”


Gemma Godfrey, 30, is head of investment strategy at wealth management group Brooks Macdonald and sits on the advisory board of Templars, a communications consultancy firm

“Gender diversity at the top of a firm brings in different skill sets. It means you’re looking at the business from all angles and mitigating risks. I think a lot of boards have gone wrong because the chief executive – often a man – has hired someone who is just like him. My CEO is female, and she stops other women getting lost in the company, but I also have a male mentor who advises me on how to achieve my career goals.

We need to act on gender representation, but quotas are flawed. They don’t create long-term, sustainable solutions. Women at the top need to act as role models for other females. They need to embody the proof that if you have the right skill set, experience and network built up over years of hard work you will get there. Implementing a quota would strip away that respect and damage the image of the company.

Additionally, women elected through a quota would feel like a number rather than an asset and may find themselves ignored in the boardroom. For women to be effective in the role they need to know that they got there through merit and by adding value. Businesses also need to really make an example of any woman brought on to the board, so others will be inspired to achieve the same.”

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Stylist Team