Gender diversity on Boards

by Laura Carstensen

Published: 23 Jul 2014

I am so keen to get going with this inquiry! Even though good work has been done on the question of gender diversity on Boards (notably of course Lord Davies' 2011 'Women on. Boards' report, with its subsequent annual reviews of progress) the Commission has concluded that the time is now right for it to deploy its particular power and standing in the field to push matters on.

The first twenty years of my career were spent in the City as a lawyer where, although I became an equity partner, I observed the systemic and continuing under-representation of women at the top, despite long-established equal entry rates. The drivers behind that phenomenon are in part no doubt specific to the City and to the particular business models of professional services firms; but in part they are recognisably the same as the drivers that appear to be at work across business more broadly. It is often said that the problem is a largely male talent pipeline for the most senior posts. Is that actuality or perception? The reflective views of Chairs of boards and of nomination committees, alongside the search firms they use, will be key evidence. I sit on two plc boards currently (Park Group plc and The Co-operative Bank plc) and both are sensitive to the issue but, typically, have largely male boards. My entire career it sometimes seems has been spent as the only woman in the room or as one of a couple of women in the room; I kind of stopped noticing it years ago on a personal level but I do notice that on the rare occasions when women are represented in a balanced way or even form a substantial minority a jokey comment will often be made - because it is still so unusual as to be logged. At this stage of development of our society and economy this skewing just cannot be either right or sensible.

I have never been comfortable with the emerging view that a focus on a specific percentage target for the female contingent (on FTSE boards, in the Cabinet etc) is a reasonable aspiration. Admittedly the targets that have been suggested would be an advance on the prevailing '10% tolerance' (across senior echelons of all sorts) but I worry that the waymark might become the destination. So I am disinclined to talk in terms of particular proportions and more interested in discovering how structural and behavioural features of the 'market for talent' (supply and demand features, cultural and behavioural norms, economic and other incentives) are operating so as to produce such a manifestly skewed outcome from a gender perspective. .

Of course there are other issues with board diversity - and they too hamper the ability of companies to source the best talent as well as depriving individuals of opportunities to excel - but I take the view that if we can't even tackle issues of gender inequality effectively, affecting as they do half the population, then our chances of succeeding elsewhere must be slim indeed. So this inquiry is a beginning, not an end. And for me both detriments - the detriment to our economy of leading companies drawing their leadership from an unduly narrow talent pool and the detriment to individuals from being unfairly excluded from career opportunities - raise serious public interest issues which must be rigorously examined and, if established, remedied. It follows from this, if there is an established public interest detriment requiring remedy, that remediation would bring positive benefits, to the economy and to individuals. Macro and micro benefit from unblocking the market for talent. So this inquiry is extremely important.