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Better boardrooms: Will quotas or culture boost female directors?

In February Lord Davies of Abersoch fired a major warning shot for diversity across the bows of big businesses in the UK.

Time to take action

Either take action now to increase the number of women on boards, he warned, or face the less palatable prospect of legislation and quotas to enforce greater gender balance.

His report, entitled Women on Boards looked specifically at the benefits of and barriers to encouraging more women onto the management boards of firms across UK business.

Its conclusions set out in black and white what many have been saying for some time − that the failure to employ more women in senior positions is a waste of talent and fundamentally bad for business.

Not least in civil engineering, where a scan through the boards and management teams reveals that few firms exceed 10% female representation − typically one board member, usually HR directors, out of 10.

Given that only 5% of professional employees overall are currently women, the challenge of closing the gender balance gap on boards is therefore that much tougher.

UK conitinues to under-represent women

However, as the Davies report points out, civil engineering is not alone. It highlights that, despite much evidence from around the world that although “companies with more women on their boards were found to outperform their rivals with a 42% higher return in sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity” women remain under-represented on UK company boards.

“In 2009 only 12.2% of directors of FTSE 100 companies were women, and on the boards of FTSE 250 companies the proportion was just 7.3%,” the report states.

“The challenge for the profession is changing the current culture which still makes it difficult for women to progress to the highest levels”

Anna Barnes, Arup associate director and chair of the ConnectWomen group

“By 2010 these figures had moved to 12.5% for FTSE 100 and 7.8% of FTSE 250. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2008, at the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK.

Clearly the construction industry is not only missing a trick but will come under increasing pressure to balance the gender of its top level skills.

New Civil Engineer has joined up with the Arup Connect Women Network to explore the issues surrounding diversity in the industry to help gain better understanding of the barriers that still exist and share ideas about how to break through them.

New, exciting events

The initiative kicks off in September with a lunchtime presentation and discussion about the issues raised by the recent Lord Davies report.

“Increasing the representation of women on the boards of the UK’s civil engineering and construction firms is an obvious way to tap into talent,” said Anna Barnes, Arup associate director and chair of the ConnectWomen group. “The challenge for the profession is changing the current culture which still makes it difficult for women to progress to the highest levels.”

The event will see Baroness Virginia Bottomley, former Secretary of State for Health and now chair of headhunter Odgers Berndtson’s Board & CEO Practice joined by Arup director Jenny Baster and BDP director Michelle McDowell − who was recently named Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Yea.

Sharing views

Other pioneering business leaders from across the industry will also share views on how to achieve the balance of skills and perspectives at the top.

The meeting will draw on the increasing bulk of evidence assembled by groups such as the recently formed 30% Club which, as the name suggests, hopes to see the overall female board representation in the UK grow to 30% through cultural change rather than quotas. Its members include 25 chairmen from across UK business including Allan Cook, of Atkins.

The meeting will also reflect on evidence and experiences from around the world, including Norway which has a legally required minimum level of female board representation and now boasts 42%.

Canada has pledged to reach 50% by December 2011, Belgium currently has just 6.5% but wants to see 30% women on boards within seven years and Germany, which with just 9% today has already threatened to use quotas.

Lord Davies noted the general mistrust of using quotas in the UK but made clear that it remained a tool to be used if needed. “On balance the decision has been made not to recommend quotas,” he said.

“Government must reserve the right to introduce more prescriptive alternatives if the recommended business-led approach does not achieve significant change.”

  • The NCE/Arup event in September will be reported in NCE and followed up with a bigger meeting at the Infrastructure Show on 18 October where Dame Helen Alexander, former president of the CBI, will lead the discussion.

Readers' comments (1)

  • In my opinion, quotas are definitely not the way to go. This will discourage women away from these board roles, because they will feel continuously underpressure and will maybe start to question whether they actually deserve to be there, or whether they are just there for a statistical/PC reasons.

    Attitudes simply need to change, which will not happen overnight. Although the 'dinosaurs' are gradually dying out, there are still some attitudes that quite frankly are appauling towards women in this industry. Events like the NCE/Arup connect are fantastic ideas and are helping, and eventually we should see this gender gap starting to close.

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