France leads the way for women in the boardroom – should we follow?

Last night after a very hectic day, I read the news that France is forcing large companies to reserve 40% the boardroom places for women. Wow!!!  If you listened to Emma Wimhurst and I discussing the situation here in the UK with James Max on LBC Radio last November you will already know that I am a huge fan of positive discrimination.  I am aware that this is not a popular position in the UK, but I genuinely believe that if we want to create radical change very quickly, this is the way to do it.

So, for me this is the most exciting news for gender equality that we have had in years.  Norway has successfully implemented a scheme where 40% of all boardroom positions need to be held by women and as a result they are leading the way as a role model for how countries can smash the glass ceiling forever.  In Norway, organisations were given 2 years to make the transition.  Not a lot of time by any means.   To now be in a position where a major economy like France (no disrespect to Norway), is implementing a similar scheme is just amazing. It a real move forward for us.

Currently 10% of boardroom positions are being held by women in France.  It will be a major undertaking to translate that 10% into 40%.   In the latest version of the bill, they have given companies three years to have boards that are 20% women and six years to reach 40%.    And at the next boardroom review of every company, each one will be required to have a woman on board.  This will create thousands of opportunities for women all across the country.

One of the main drawbacks to implementing a scheme like this is the lack of experienced women who can fulfil these roles.  That is why we need more boardroom ready programmes for women.  Programmes that enable women to learn the skills to be able to take on these big roles.  There is a lot of evidence that shows that organisations with women on the board do better than those without and currently 12% of boards have female members, but the majority of those are in non-executive positions.

The Catalyst Report from 2007  found that on average, Fortune 500 companies with more women on their boards of directors turned in better financial performances than those with fewer women board directors. Also, when women represent 30% of a board of directors, the profitability of accompany increases threefold.   If that’s not an argument for more women in the boardroom, I don’t know what is.

Whenever there is discussion about positive discrimination there is a lot of outrage that jobs should only be given on merit.  And I agree.  I definitely don’t think that a woman who is unqualified should be given a position over a man who is qualified.  However, I see nothing wrong with grooming women to take on challenging positions that will give women the skills towards those boardroom positions.    People will also frequently cite examples of terrible women bosses that they had in the past… to those people I say there are terrible male bosses as well.  Last night, I was at the Shine Awards, celebrating women in the travel and leisure industry and the keynote speaker cited an example where a woman who was going for a very senior position was being questioned about that decision becuase she has children.  If that’s not discrimination, I don’t know what is.  So it’s time to stop pussy footing around and start a rally cry to crush the glass ceiling and follow in France’s footsteps.

The strong negative reaction towards positive discrimination in the UK and the lack of balls from UK politicians means that such a measure is a long way off, but the reality is that anything other than this is just playing around the edges.  If we want to engender real change, positive discrimination is the way forward.  So I for one will be watching to see how France makes this work for them and maybe, one day, we can see some radical forward thinking change in this country.

But that’s just my opinion!  What do you think – feel free to agree, disagree, rant – whatever you like, we’re really interested in your views

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Julie Hall is the founder of Women Unlimited and Springmedia.

Under the latest version of the bill, companies will have three years to ensure  that 20% of their board is made up of women, and they will have to reach the  40% level in six years

5 Replies to “France leads the way for women in the boardroom – should we follow?”

  1. Good article Julie. I’m on the fence with this one a bit. (Very unlike me!). Can’t help but feel that positive discrimination is still discrimination. Before I freelanced I would have hated to be given a job role ‘because I was a woman’ rather than being given the job ‘because I was good.’ We (women) can’t complain about discrimination and then applaud it if it’s in our favour, surely?

    Woud like to hear what other people think.

  2. I agree with Sarah. I think it is so sad that we have to come up with a rule in order to ensure that women are present in a board room.

  3. Sarah/Astrid what do you suggest? Do you think there is a difference between the way men and women govern or do business? Do you think the reason that despite we’re 51% of the population women are inherently not that ambitous nor capable of being on boards, hence the reason we’re on boards in such a small number?

    Should we really be looking into getting women to become more stay at home mothers because evidence shows that is clearly the only think we do really well?

    I mean there’s what 15% if that of us as MP’s….how many of us are CEO’s for a high growth company? What is the percentage of women having a factor in the development of our economy in a big way?

    As someone who constantly faces discrimination for numerous and a myriad of reasons, I will admit being a fan of affirmative action.

    Especially with what happened with the recession and the way it was handled-evidence shows women are more risk adversed-I find it really uncomfortable to hear women or minorities appear negative about positive discrimination.

    If we were n’t discriminated against, then we wouldn’t have it would we?

    It’s like saying well, the suffragettes gave us the vote and that’s all that needs to be done. Suddenly those men who have enjoyed all that freedom of being able to pursue their dreams, will suddenly change their minds and boom, treat women with 100% equality.

    The more we come up with solutions, maybe then positive discrimination will disappear once and for all.

  4. Positive discrimination is an extremely touch issue. Taking a stand on it is tough, as everybody likes to see it this way, as Sarah puts it well in response above

    a job role ‘because I was a woman’ rather than being given the job ‘because I was good.

    Are we looking for another century, a decade or what timeframe to see the equal opportunity reflect in numbers at the top levels , parliaments, and places where decisions play major role in shaping the century, economy, culture, nations, policies our children ..

    How many men have been wondering that they held the jobs because of lack of 50% of the other gender having historically started off with different expectations – hardly — they *deserved/worked hard for it* —

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