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Charlotte Vere: Women should not be on boards because of tokenism, but because they create jobs and make good decisions

Picture 10Charlotte Vere is the founder of Women On, a new think tank for women.

Whilst it is a relief that the government has woken up to women, I can’t help feeling that some of the focus is just a tad elitist and won’t make a jot of different to the millions of women striving day-to-day at home and in the workplace.

Today’s focus is women on boards. More specifically, women on FTSE 100 boards or, at a push, on FTSE 350 boards. Assuming that each FTSE 100 company has on average 12 directors, we are focusing on who does or does not fill 1,200 very highly paid jobs available only to people of extraordinary talent. An elitist competition indeed.

But let’s play the game for a while, and join in this concern for the elite. Does the gender make-up of boards really matter?

There is a train of thought that women should be on boards because it is "important". No more explanation than that. This has inevitable underlying currents of tokenism and overt positive discrimination more likely to perpetuate gender divisions rather than heal any rifts.

Others assume that women on boards are role models and that there is some trickle-down effect to their appointment. However, in most companies, particularly those such as FTSE 100 organisations that employ thousands, employees know their colleagues and their boss, and maybe the boss above that. For most workers the board is a remote and inaccessible group of untouchables, likely to be more remote for women, who at the moment are disproportionately pooled at the lower end of the food chain.

And lastly there is the claim that boards with women on them make better decisions – meaning more job creation and increased profitability. If this is the case, and there is increasing evidence to suggest that it is, then this is the message that should be shouted from the rooftops, the reason for the letters from the Prime Minister to FTSE 350 bosses, the rationale for the diversity policy statements now required by the FRC and the backbone for the new voluntary code adopted by executive search firms.

It isn’t enough to say we need more women on boards, we need to know why. And it isn’t enough to demand that female versions of these extraordinary individuals are produced out of nowhere, we need to talk about how we get there. But that’s for another day.


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