Plain speaking about quotas for women directors

This is a guest post by Sarah Burnett, research director for public sector BPO at analyst NelsonHall.

The subject of quotas for women on company boards has been in the news again. It follows recent publication of figures by Norman Broadbent, the recruitment company, which show women make up only 14.9% of company board members. The figure for the technology sector is slightly better, roughly between 15% and 17%. These figures lay bare the scale of gender imbalance that is typical of the British company board. Yet media coverage of the subject tends to skirt around the real career challenges that women face.

There are a number of issues that have to be discussed openly if we are ever to get to the bottom of the problem. And discuss we must as the alternative is the dire picture that was painted by a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) report in 2011. The report titled Women on Boards estimated that at the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK. The same report also noted the high level of female attrition from the UK workforce. It states that, “Male and female graduate entry into the workforce is relatively equal. This equality is maintained at junior management positions but then suffers a marked drop at senior management levels”.

As a working mother, I can hazard a couple of guesses as to the reasons: first, women who start a family face difficult choices when balancing the demands of a high-pressure job and the needs of their children. In reality, working mums have to become masters of operational excellence, organising two sets of processes that run in parallel every day: one set of operations structured around the home to take care of the needs of their children, and another in the office to handle their responsibilities at work. Although separate, these operations can affect each other dramatically should an unexpected event occur, such as a child falling sick or a system crash creating extra hours of work. Flexibility and support provided by the employer is essential if women are to be able to continue to work.

Second, those who take a career break to look after their young children find it hard to get back into work let alone at the same level of seniority as before. They have to rebuild their careers, often having to start again on a lower rung of the career ladder. Gaining lost ground is not easy in the competitive jobs market and male colleagues who have not taken a career break have a huge advantage.

If the government really wants to see more women board members, it must look into how to make it easier for women returners to regain senior roles after a career break of three or four years. It must consider how to create an employment market that looks more favourably on part-time posts or job-share at senior management levels. The government often quotes Norway’s success at achieving broader gender equality in its boardrooms. Norway also happens to have employment laws that foster work-life balance. As far back as 2007 half of Norway’s workforce was able to work flexibly.

There are other issues too. Take the example of technology companies. Their boards are often dominated by sales people who have generated huge revenues for their companies. These people have worked all hours to further their careers, often at the expense of family time. For women with children it would take more than the company’s 9-to-5 day care nursery to enable them to work the long hours that are usually expected of such upwardly mobile managers. In reality, this is an issue that the government’s quota system is unlikely to be able to address even if a huge amount of effort went into implementing it. The culture that favours people working long hours at the expense of their work-life balance runs deep. It will take a long while to do anything about it and the current sluggish economy is not conducive to change.