EU-legislated quotas on boards: Helena Morrissey v Mary Honeyball MEP

Isn’t it remarkable how often, on the BBC and elsewhere, gender issues in general – and ‘gender balance in the boardroom’ in particular – are subjects handed automatically to female journalists and broadcasters to handle, as if men had no legitimate interest in these subjects? And the people they interview are always (or nearly always) only women. Could the BBC not find even one businessman opposed to ‘improving’ gender balance in boardrooms?

A good example of this bias is evident in this morning’s BBC Radio 4 programme Today, in which Sarah Montague (an excellent presenter, but the sole woman in a team of five presenters) was tasked with hosting a discussion on EU-legislated quotas for women in boardrooms, interviewing Helena Morrissey and the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball. The following link will be functional for 7 days. Scroll down to 07:51 and click on the iPlayer link. The discussion lasts a little under seven minutes. My thanks to Tony and Ray for making me aware of this discussion. I’ve underlined a commendable statement made by Helena Morrissey.

Here’s a transcript of the discussion, my thanks to Davina for typing it out.

Sarah M: The European Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding, is proposing a new law in Strasbourg today that would force all major European countries to have at least 40% of their boards made up of women. The Commission is deeply divided on the issue. Perhaps surprisingly, the support mainly comes from male Commissioners, while most of the female Commissioners prefer the ides of self-regulation.

Someone who is in favour of quotas is Labour’s spokesperson on gender and equality in the European parliament, the MEP Mary Honeyball. She joins us from Strasbourg now. Here in the studio we’re joined by Helena Morrissey, Chief Executive Officer of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% club, which is a group of chairmen and women who’ve voluntarily committed to bringing more women onto their boards. Good morning to you both.

Both: Good morning.

Sarah M: Mary Honeyball, why do you think it’s necessary now to take what on the face of it seems quite a heavy-handed proposal, to have these quotas?

Mary H: I think if you look at the figures it becomes absolutely apparent why we need it now. Just under 14% of board members in the top companies across the EU are women, yet women make up 60% of recent graduates, so we have a huge mismatch here. I believe we need quotas to move this along. If I thought voluntary measures would work, I’d support them. I think they’ll work, but they’ll take too long. I think the situation is so bad now that we do need to move quickly, which is why I very much support Mrs Reding’s proposals, and I hope that they’re agreed by the Commission today.

Sarah M: OK. Helena Morrissey, when you look at the stats, it does look like this needs some big shove to change things…

Helena M: Well, the thing is, here in the UK we have had a big shove in the last couple of years, since the Davies committee reported and put out 10 clear recommendations for voluntary business-led change. Organisations like the 30% club have been trying to implement those recommendations. We’ve seen a really striking change in the pace of progress, for example, since March of this year there have been 62 FTSE non-executive appointments, 30 have gone to women – almost half. That’s a huge leap up from 2010, when it was 13%. So what we’re seeing is not just an acceptance by companies of the need for change, they’re really pressing ahead in a sustainable business-led way.

Sarah M: So that means we have now 17% of… what… executive roles on boards?

Helena M: We’re talking of all roles on boards…

Sarah M: Non-exec or exec? Most of them in the UK are non-exec? Which means they’re not taking the hands-on decisions about their companies. They’re sitting back and making a sort of…

Helena M: Well, I’m not sure these days that non-execs regard themselves as ‘sitting back’. If you look at what happened at Citigroup a couple of weeks ago, when they ousted the CEO, the board was very much in charge of that. So I think that anyone who doubts the importance of non-executive directors has got it wrong. It’s obviously important that we have both and I think that the important things about quotas, or one of the important things, is that they haven’t shown… if you look at Norway, which is often cited as a great example of quotas working, you’ve got 40% non-execs being women in Norway, but 3% of CEOs are women. It hasn’t made a change in the way businesses really operate.

Sarah M: Mary Honeyball, if that’s true, about 50% of new appointees being women, that would suggest the voluntary approach here is working?

Mary H: It’s working up to a point. I don’t actually believe that it’s working quickly enough. If you look at what we’re talking about, which is the larger companies, the European Commission’s proposals – if they are agreed – only concern the larger companies. It would take a very long time, it would take about 25 to 30 years to get us up to the 40% mark.

Sarah M: OK, but do you want more than 50% of new people on boards to be women?

Mary H: No, I want to see parity because I believe this is an issue of justice and fairness. I would actually point out that the European parliament – as opposed to the European commission – is completely committed to quotas across party lines. The centre-right European People’s Party is in favour of quotas in the boardroom. So is the Socialist and Democratic Group, to which I belong, also the Liberal Group and the Green Group. There’s very strong cross-party support for this in the European parliament.

Sarah M: Helena Morrissey, there is also, when you look at countries… you mentioned Norway, but it’s not just Norway… there’s a French law in place, Spain has a similar law, Germany is considering it… we’re lining up with Malta and Latvia to block it.

Helena M: Well, and the Netherlands, and other countries like Sweden and Germany that are believed to be adopting our approach as well. Just to correct what Mary said…

Sarah M: We don’t want to have an argument. In Sweden, women hold a quarter of board positions, there might be a more compelling reason why that’s so…

Helena M: We’re on track for that. One of the things I like to quote is it won’t take 25 years to get to 40%, we’re on track now because of the fast acceleration we’ve seen in two years. I’m not disputing it was too slow before, but we’re on track to get to 30% by the end of 2015. But I’d like to point out, I think quotas are discriminatory themselves and it’s a bit ironic… I mean, the last time I checked, Viviane Reding was Justice Commissioner for men as well as for women. It seems odd to introduce another form of discrimination to solve, arguably, an injustice we have already.

Mary H: You see, I don’t think it is discrimination. I think we do need quotas and targets and action to make sure that women aren’t discriminated against. And on the stats, I would point out that Helena’s talking about UK figures and I’m talking about European-wide figures.

Sarah M: We’re trying to cover both, but Mary Honeyball, why do you think it’s happening? Is it just old-fashioned sexism? Men sitting on boards, thinking women just aren’t up to the job?

Mary H: I think that’s quite a large part of it. There certainly are cultural issues here. I think there’s also something about the way women progress through companies… when women have children, it’s very often a huge problem. So I think we need to look at this as a long process, and we need to make sure we bring women on. I think that’s a hugely important part of doing this.

Helena M: Yes, I agree on the need for much more sustainable efforts around this… an executive position – a CEO or a CFO – can’t be created overnight, so no quota could ever get you there. But I think we are on the road in the UK, and that’s maybe the blueprint if you were thinking of rolling out things across Europe, something I’m not necessarily in favour of, either. We’ve achieved a huge amount from a very slow start a couple of years ago.

Sarah M: Helena, can I ask you – I asked Mary Honeybunch – are you aware of sexism in boardrooms?

Helena M: Well, the boards I’ve sat on, I haven’t felt… sometimes I’ve been the chair, so perhaps that’s why… but the chairman supporters of the 30% club… we have 55 chairman supporters, half are from the FTSE that represent 60 of the UK’s largest firms. The great thing is, they haven’t done it through being coerced. They’re actually running the boards. They support it because they’ve seen the improvement that having women has made to the dynamic of their boardroom, and that’s really got to be the best argument for…      

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s