How Will Boards Explain Their Lack of Women?

Last Updated Mar 12, 2010 2:23 PM EST

Gordon Brown is calling for the UK corporate governance code to force companies to state why they have not promoted more females to top jobs. The answers might be too embarrassingly honest.

The under-representation of women on corporate boards is a continuing cause celebre -- and remains a perennial problem because the numbers are stubbornly static at their low level. While three-quarters of FTSE 100 companies have a woman on the board it is usually only one, and a mere 15 of the 100 firms have a female executive, according to Cranfield School of Management.

Just 12 per cent of FTSE directors are women and the prime minister's letter to the Financial Reporting Council wants the authors of the government code to make directors tell shareholders what they are doing about it. There's no talk of Norwegian-style boardroom quotas, but the premier threatens that if having to account for a gender imbalance at board level does not work, he will take "more serious action".

Don't expect any of these male-dominated boards to admit to misogyny. It takes a conspiracy theorist to believe nomination committees universally reject women candidates on principle or prejudice. The reality is that the shortlists provided by headhunters are notably short of females and these firms blame the lack of women willing to put themselves forward for advancement.

Bending over backwards to find female names to fill-out candidates' lists usually means bending the selection criteria and overpromotion helps neither the individual nor other would-be women directors, but that is the risk, not only as a result of the PM's pressure, but also from the Equality Bill, which gives employers the sanction to discriminate positively to promote women.

Politicians must concede that while there should be no barriers to women wanting to climb the corporate ladder, not all women see that as an objective. And if some choose to curtail their careers prematurely to pursue other options leaving many men remaining in the running, then there will be more males than females in top management.

If the prime minister's is successful in inserting a new clause into the corporate governance code, there will still be plenty of opportunity for directors to avoid being honest and provide a meaningless paragraph claiming they have done their best and are always open to appointing suitable candidates.

Brown can try to force companies to promote women but he cannot force women to take the jobs. Equality in business is about opportunity, not about equal numbers in the boardroom.