Professor Len Shackleton is Economics Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
David Cameron’s trip to the Nordic-Baltic conference seems to have reinforced his view that companies should be pressurised into putting women on their boards. At present he favours Lord Davies’s “target” of 25% female board membership for FTSE-100 companies, but is hinting that insufficiently rapid progress may lead to the imposition of formal quotas on the lines pioneered in Norway. He should think carefully before going down this road.
Today just 15% of board members in top UK companies are female. Why so few? It is unlikely simply to be sexism and discrimination. Few people at the top of companies, who are all pretty bright, are likely to be that daft, given the legal sanctions against discrimination.
More likely, it has much to do with the demands of the job. Today’s top executives are very unusual, slightly scary people. Unlike first generation entrepreneurs, they are highly educated, with MBAs from the top international universities together with accountancy, financial or other professional qualifications; they have typically held major operational roles within companies, often running key divisions in other countries, and they work stupefyingly long hours and travel constantly. Many are foreign-born. They are wildly atypical of even the male population. Most of us UK males are just as unlikely to be top executives as women are.