More Blondes On Board

Is David Cameron’s enthusiasm for more top women just pandering to half of the electorate, or something else altogether?

“The case is overwhelming that companies are better run if we have men and women alongside each other”, said David Cameron yesterday during his stay in Stockholm to discuss all things Nordic. He was referring to the idea of introducing quotas for women on Britain’s boards, something he’d prefer to see happen more naturally.

I am no psychologist, but from many years as a manager I know that teams work better if they are composed of a wide range of folk. But it is still quite common to find, at a senior level, that they are mostly comprised of men. When a woman enters, the dynamic of the group changes and you tend to get more mature and considered behaviour. Boys can be rather childish and deluded playing on their own. It may be empirical evidence, but I always encourage boards to add women.

In 2008, Norway changed the law and required publicly listed company boards to be comprised of at least 40 per cent women. The figure there now stands at 44.5 per cent. Sweden hopes to get to 40 per cent by 2015. Spain and France are considering doing something similar. It seems to be going well and the idea is spreading into institutional organisations outside Scandinavia, such as Deutsche Telecom, which intends to fill 30 per cent of its top jobs with women in the next four years.

Today, around FTSE100 boardroom tables only 14 per cent of the seats have women sitting on them, just a tad up from the 12 per cent in 2010. In the UK, only 33 FTSE100 companies have set targets for increasing the participation of women on boards. And 10 of those have set a target of just 10 per cent, well below the level Lord Davies recommended in his eponymous report published at the beginning of 2011. He said that 25 per cent was a good figure to aim for by 2015. Since his report, only 22.5 per cent of new appointments have been female, below the 33 per cent that he suggested was necessary to achieve this target.

There has been quite a lot of research that supports the notion that all this is probably a good thing. Apparently, if you have three or more women on a board you tend to have better returns on equity and assets, the business will also tend to be better organised and more effective. It has been found that women actually prepare for meetings, heaven forefend, so the level of debate rises and you get better decisions too. You can begin to see why the idea has merit can’t you?

So, OK then, let’s have more women in top jobs, but not just in supportive or administrative jobs. I’d like to see more women in real corporate leadership roles. One of the many cultural hurdles in their way, that I think justifies this sort of affirmative action, is that women naturally approach leadership with a more communal and group-oriented approach than their male colleagues. This is a little like the business culture in Scandinavia, where leadership from both sexes is much more of a group and less of an individual thing. It is hardly surprising that this initiative started there: it is far less of a challenge for them, than it will be for us.

Too often women have had to adopt male characteristics to get on in business and particularly to get to the “top” in our culture. Maybe with a little more peer support we’ll see more of them leading businesses, not from this highly egotistical top but from alongside the other people who work there. It’s a long overdue evolutionary step for UK business.

It’s time for a permanent wave of blonde Scandinavian business culture to refresh the rather stale paradigm of business leadership we still have in this country.


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