Women on Boards: Britain Must Lead Not Follow the Rest of Europe

Labour Party

It was announced on Tuesday that Burberry Chief Executive Angela Ahrendts would be leaving the company. Ahrendts’ move to Apple reduces the number of women heading up FTSE 100 companies to just two – Imperial Tobacco’s Alison Cooper and easyJet’s Carolyn McCall. It illustrates that, while the glass ceiling may be (slowly) rising, it is not going away. The very top of business is still uniformly male.

Ahrendts’ departure was timely, coming on the same day as European Parliament committees voted in favour of draft legislation requiring 40% representation for women among non-executive board members. The proposals, once enshrined in law, would require company boards to be two fifths female by 2020. A comprehensive 40 of the 51 committee members voted in favour of the plans, meaning that they can now go to the European Parliament for its next full session in November – and after that on to the Council of Ministers (the 28 Member States’ respective governments).

The UK’s existing self-regulatory measures have brought about incremental improvements when it comes to the number of women on boards. Last week figures showed that FTSE 100 non-exec directors are now 19% female, suggesting we are likely to hit Lord Davies’s 25% target by 2015. We are moving in the right direction.

However, our record on the issue remains distinctly average compared to other Member States. France, Holland and Italy have all had dramatic rises following the introduction of quotas in 2010, with France’s level of female representation increasing from 12.4% to 26.8%. The proportion of women on British boards, by comparison, is pretty much in line with Europe-wide figures – no better, no worse.

London, Europe’s main financial centre and home to some of the world’s largest companies, should be leading the way on this issue. Diversity at the top of businesses brings better leadership and a more rounded, innovative approach. I hope that the 40% target voted through yesterday will ultimately pass into EU Law, and that it will encourage UK businesses to look at competitors on the continent and try harder to set the pace. 60% of British graduates are now female; we need this to be better reflected in the people doing the top jobs.

Setting out a 2020 EU target for the proportion of women on boards would not mean telling individual Member States exactly how to go about addressing the problem; every country has a different economy and a different business ethos. Nor would it set unachievable goals for countries that are already doing well. What it would do is speed up the varying rates of progress across Member States, so that a gold standard for women on boards was reached by more quickly by more countries.

For me this is exactly what the European Parliament is there for: helping Member States to set out a shared vision for a more progressive Europe, and then working flexibly with them to help achieve it. Countries become fairer and more efficient when they work at a problem together rather than in isolation.

I hope the 40% target is formally introduced across Europe, and that its effect trickles upwards, so that if a female Chief Executive leaves a FTSE 100 company in 2020 it is less notable, from a gender equality perspective, than Ahrendts’ departure was yesterday.

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