Speaking at the CIPD event Gender Diversity in the Boardroom in London yesterday, Jo Swinson called for a cultural shift to improve gender diversity at all levels of business.
“The boardroom is just effectively a symptom of the wider problem, which is why I don’t believe that a quota response to this is actually going to come close to solving the issues that we need to solve.
“We absolutely need to change the culture and we absolutely need voluntary action.
“But just having quotas to fix ratios in the boardroom on its own is an entirely inadequate response to the scale of the challenge,” she said.
Ms Swinson, who is also Women and Equalities Minister, pointed to lack of confidence as a reason that some professional women do not progress into senior roles.
It was, she said, a “huge issue for many women,” and stressed the importance of “encouraging girls to aspire and to develop that confidence.”
The Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire also called on businesses to be proactive in identifying the barriers that were preventing women from progressing.
“You need to look in your own organisation at what the challenges are, analyse that information and then work out what you need to do to break down those barriers,” she said.
CEO of Newton Investment Management Helena Morrissey echoed Ms Swinson’s views on boardroom quotas, suggesting that the gender equality argument had moved beyond arbitrary targets.
“I have made a rule of thumb that I am going to spend my rather scarce time these days, devoted to actually helping to improve the situation for women and for businesses, rather than argue about something which you could argue about until forever,” she said.
Ms Morrissey is the founder of the 30% club which aims to increase the number of women at all levels of business through supporting individuals and companies.
A survey done by the CIPD found support for Ms Morrissey’s stance on quotas with 60% of respondents saying they were against mandatory targets.
She advocates a similar approach to Ms Swinson, focussed on changing corporate culture, and is positive about the “breakthrough,” that she has observed in the UK over the past few years.
Although Ms Morrissey also conceded that there was still a way to go.
“We have the momentum collectively and we should plough on until we get right to the result… We are seeing progress but we need to finish the job,” she said.
Economist Vicky Pryce took the opposite view on quotas, however, suggesting that they should be applied to all senior executive positions to avoid companies inserting symbolic figures on boards.
“I don’t give a damn about boards… A lot of people have cheated in terms of having people on the board as non-execs who… are not necessarily going to spend any time worrying about what happens in the UK or the UK workplace,” she said.
Gender inequality in the workplace, she added, was a “classic market failure argument which requires Government intervention.”
Ms Pryce was also keen to draw attention to the “motherhood paradox,” where capable women “disappear from the workplace during motherhood.”
Inflexible working and the high cost of childcare were put forward as reasons why motherhood was a barrier to either returning to work at the same level and continuing to advance, or returning to work altogether.
“My view is that childcare should be free,” Ms Pryce said.
Funding such a policy, she added, “would actually be perfectly manageable and women being in work and paying tax is going to make up for it anyway.”
Ms Swinson also criticised current UK working practices, describing them as being “stuck in the 50s” and voiced her support for greater flexibility for employees.
“We need to move to much more flexibility just being the norm,” she said.
The Business Minister also highlighted the importance of companies collecting data on the diversity of their workforce.
She trumpeted the Government’s ‘Think, Act, Report’ initiative which encourages companies to reflect on their approach to gender diversity through a formal framework.
Head of HR at O2 Ann Pickering welcomed the move towards statistical analysis and criticised organisations who had not embraced the approach, accusing them of “dragging their heels”
“I don’t think all organisations are doing what they should do morally, to be blunt. There is no excuse for any organisation to say they don’t monitor, they haven’t got the ability to monitor stats.
“I think that is outrageous… that is just poor management practice,” she said.
Speaking afterwards CIPD’s policy expert Dianah Worman agreed with the Minister, saying:
“Boardroom diversity is not a numbers game and not just about women. It is also not just about the boardroom, but rather understanding and monitoring the entire workforce in order to create clear talent pipelines which allow women to reach the top.
“Organisations need to be receptive to this and aware of initiatives such as ‘Think, Act, Report’ in order to encourage more women to progress to these positions. We hope the doors that have helped to increase female representation thus far will stay open for broader diversity in the workforce.”