Boardroom quotas: an incredibly bad idea

Cameron may well believe that it is the government’s job to inject social justice and gender equality into private businesses. Good for him. But if so, he can no longer call himself a Conservative

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Note to Dave: Women are capable of reaching the top without a helping hand
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Megan Moore
On 9 February 2012 15:58

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, Megan Moore has reflected: "I'm young, I make mistakes, what can I say."

If anyone is still in doubt that the premiership of David Cameron represents the ultimate triumph of style over substance, recent reports that Britain is considering the introduction of Scandinavian-style boardroom quotas for women - known as ‘golden skirt’ policies – should help finally settle the matter.

Speaking from the Nordic-Baltic Summit yesterday, Cameron argued that, given there is ‘a positive link between women in leadership and business performance,’ the government should assist women to ‘become entrepreneurs and take up leading positions in business.’ Considering his recent lady troubles,Cameron may hope that his support for such measures shows that he values and respects women. In fact, it shows exactly the opposite.

The first and most obvious objection to boardroom quotas is that they don’t actually work. A 2010 study by Amy Dittmar and Kenneth Ahern of the Ross Business School, University of Michigan, found that in Norway, a 10 percent increase in female board members in a company – enforced through a quota introduced in 2003 – caused the value of the company to drop. After all, if quality is no longer the sole criterion for choosing board members, it is highly likely the quality of the board will suffer.

In some cases it would give way entirely to tokenism: the chairman of the BG Group, Robert Wilson, has claimed setting a 25 percent target for female board members would mean 100 percent of the appointments to his company for the next three years would have to be female. When companies are being shackled by such arbitrary measures, how can attracting talent and fostering success remain their primary focus?  

Of course, not all are concerned about economic growth. Within the Labour Party – which is, of course, the obvious place to look for such people – the former Equalities Minister Harriet Harman has described the existence of male-only City boards as a ‘nightmare’, contributing to a macho, testosterone-fuelled culture in British business that needs to be tackled.

I’m sorry - what? How can you call yourself a feminist and then make an argument based on anti-male stereotyping? It’s analogous to saying, ‘We need more women in the boardroom because they are such kind, gentle creatures, and so radiant and lovely, though of course we will have to invest more in smelling salts.’

The great irony of all this is that people who claim to be in favour of gender equality in the workforce really shouldn’t be that bothered about women. As Daniel Knowles of the Telegraph has noted, the real crisis in the job market is what is going to happen to low-skilled school-leavers, who are largely male. He quotes an OECD report from 2008:

Highly qualified young people fare better on the labour market in Britain than do their counterparts in many other OECD countries. But low-skilled 16 to 24 year olds in the United Kingdom perform below the OECD average, the OECD report makes clear.

Women now make up the majority of university graduates and have more or less closed the pay gap (the imbalance is not due to gender but due to this inconvenient habit women have of settling down and having children – and the only way to stop that is confiscating women’s wombs in the name of equality, something I doubt even Ms Harman would be up for.)

Women are the success story of the British workforce, and the number of female boardroom members will, inevitably, increase of its own accord as more of these highly-qualified women gain the experience and acumen needed for board membership. Helping women to achieve something that they are going to achieve anyway, albeit not quite fast enough for David Cameron’s liking, really should not be the priority of a pro-growth government.

Which brings me to my final objection: the philosophical. Cameron may well believe that it is the government’s job to inject social justice and gender equality into private businesses. Good for him. But if so, he can no longer call himself a Conservative. Few on either side of the political spectrum doubt that more equal societies tend to be more stable and prosperous - but it is the essence of conservative thought that top-down, state initiatives to implement such equality come at a disproportionate and unjustifiable cost to individual liberty.

Free market capitalism is a system that, though far from perfect, has shown itself to be the best man has yet devised for rewarding talent and diligence, and allowing individuals to succeed on their own merits. As such, enthusiastic and steadfast support of capitalism should be at the heart of Cameron’s pro-women agenda – rather than state meddling that is patronising, unnecessary and, ultimately, counterproductive.

 

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, Megan Moore has reflected: "I'm young, I make mistakes, what can I say."

Megan Moore is the Deputy Chairman of the Isle of Wight branch of Conservative Future.

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