Saturday, 11 March 2017

Boardrooms and Gender Quotas: Are White Males an ‘Endangered Species’?

This very short post looks at the attention-grabbing headline today emanating from a speech made by the Chairman of Tesco, John Allan. His comments, which will be discussed shortly, were clarified by Allen as being intended to be ‘humorous, a bit hyperbolic’ and also intended to ‘give [women] some encouragement’, but the question for this post is what this type of sentiment actually demonstrates, and what it reveals in terms of the endeavour to achieve gender equality in all walks of life. This post is starting from the viewpoint that the comments were probably hyperbolic in nature, but that the intentions of Allen, to highlight the progress made in terms of gender equality, have actually backfired and reveal an adversarial environment within which equality is practiced in language, but not in reality.

John Allan, speaking to the Retail Week Live Conference, said that ‘if you are female and from an ethnic background – and preferably both – then you are in an extremely propitious period’, and that ‘for a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs, the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future, I think. If you are a white male, tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard’. The tone of this language is clearly hyperbolic, and although distasteful does not represent Allan’s vision of reality – as Allen later clarified, he was wanting to make the reverse point to what he did. Although inadvisable, the comments should not garner a backlash, at least for the reasons that will be identified by the media. However, his comments allude to a much larger, and much more important issue, and this is regarding quotas for influential positions within business.

Whilst Allan’s comments can be seen as clumsy, they may be construed as a veiled criticism of recruitment quotas which seek to increase the numbers of non-traditional members i.e. to increase the number of female, and non-white, incumbents. In 2015, Lord Mervyn Davies conducted a government-backed report that suggested the aim should be to have a third of all boardroom positions be held by women by the end of the decade, although he stopped short of calling for a quota. It can be seen that whilst women represent over 25% of board membership positions in FTSE 100 companies, they hold just under 10% of Executive positions in these firms, which is a much more important statistic. The U.K. ranks only below Sweden when it comes to female representation at the head of major companies, but Sweden has recognised quotas for such endeavours – countries such as Germany and France have no recognised female leader for their top companies. As such, these countries are now imposing quotas to increase the level of representation on their companies’ boards, which alludes to the understanding that perhaps John Allan’s comments were not so humorous after all. The effect of this manufactured drive is being seen, with reports from France stating that it is getting harder to recruit for female board members because the pool is drying up, with one head-hunter stating that ‘if you are a man and you are looking for a board position in France, well, you are out of luck’. Research from Harvard University has found that there has been opposition to quotas from some sectors of society (particularly from countries that do not employ quota systems), from both men and women, with some stating that ‘I think it is dumb and destructive – demeaning to people who are only on the board because they are in a specific category’ – whilst those within countries that employ quota systems have been more supportive of the move, with a Norwegian participant noting that the ‘importance of the board has been upgraded’ as a result of the conscious attention paid to its composition. The sensitive nature of this topic dictates that there will always be comment to be had from both sides of the argument, although there is are underlying issues that radiate from the issue of quota systems.


John Allan’s viewpoint regarding the emergence of female and non-white board members to positions of power has two very important underlying mistakes within it. Firstly, it supposes that the increase in representation of these people on major boards is increasing at a threatening pace to its current incumbents – it is not. Secondly, it presupposes that this is where our attention should be, on the representation at board level as some form of recognition of equality, when it actual fact this aspect means very little. Real equality spreads much further than the interview panels for board membership, and this type of rhetoric regarding the need for equality at the top is misinformation – the need for equality starts at the bottom. For example, non-white children are more likely to go to State schools where non-white students are the majority, and even though the numbers of non-white students at private schools are rising, it is not enough. Also, in a more broader sense, the access to quality education and a pathway that ends up at a FTSE 100 boardroom is being consistently cut-off from females and non-white people because the social attack upon the public, what is commonly known as austerity, is affecting these groups disproportionately, with non-white communities being underfunded and cut off from opportunity and women bearing ‘86% of the austerity burden’ according to the House of Commons. John Allan’s talk of boardroom representation achieves its goal – not to increase boardroom representation but distort the discussion away from the area whereby real change can occur; only by addressing the root issues in society i.e. social deprivation and a disproportionate access to opportunities, can we see any meaningful change in the source of influence at the top of society.   

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