Do we need Big Sister to slay that prehistoric monster called inequality?

IN one area of Irish life, the public sector knocks hell out of its private sector equivalent — the make-up of boards of directors.

For the last 10 years or more, Irish governments have made significant efforts to place more women on State boards. The outcome is that many now include several women, some have an almost equal representation and a few are chaired by women, including Rose Hynes at Bord Gáis Éireann and Pat Moylan at the Arts Council.

The secondary, less positive outcome is that women who serve on more than one such board — notably Mary Davis and Angela Kerins — have been portrayed in media in recent times as Quango Queens, an accusation which undoubtedly damaged Ms Davis’ run at the presidency. These women were preceded by generations of men who had served on multiple state boards, who might, accordingly, have been called Quango Kings. They never were.

But when it came to women, the very public announcement of their presence on more than one state board was cause to stereotype and mock them as heading for home each evening, bent double under the weight of the fees paid.

That said, at least the state sector has many women on state boards, while in the private sector, in large companies only one in 10 board members is a woman.

Even that figure has to take into account that in some such businesses, women serve, at best, as sleeping partners and, at worst, as comatose partners. Their only function is to sign on whatever dotted line their hubby says needs a signature. Remember the evidence given in a recent court case by the wife of a developer?

Surveys show the Irish public is good and sick of this unbalanced governance. Half of respondents believe half of board membership should be female, with an additional quarter holding out for 40% female representation.

Viviane Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner, agrees. A year ago, she threatened to put in place mandatory measures to redress the imbalance within European boards, where only 12% of those on large listed companies are women. Northern European countries are a bit better than southern states, this pattern echoing what happens outside the EU. Norway has 40% women, whereas Japan has only 1%.

It’s easy to assume that the difference between these two non-EU countries is cultural, but in fact it is explained by the dread word “quota”. Eight years ago, Norway introduced quotas to bring women to the boardroom table. Japan did not.

Ms Reding doesn’t seem happy with the reaction to her statements of a year ago and now says she’s moving toward introducing quotas to increase the number of women on corporate boards.

“I’m not a fanatic about quotas,” she says. “But I like the results quotas bring about.”

What’s clear is that a lot of vested interests would not like the results this sort of quota system would generate.

Twenty four of the EU’s member states are opposed to the notion, with Britain favouring “less intrusive” measures. Germany’s Chamber of Industry says her suggested actions “fail to represent the realities of business”. Wonderful, the imprecision of that statement.

Which realities would we be talking about, then? One relevant business reality is that women represent half the population, ergo represent half the customers/consumers of most businesses and in many cases, more than half of the workforce.

One male board member recently told me that what bothered him about quotas was that a woman might be picked “just because she’s a woman”.

“You’re right,” I told him. “You know, I’ve served on three different public sector boards and I have to tell you, I found women on those boards who weren’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Some of them didn’t even understand that they weren’t there to represent their sector, but to serve all stakeholders. A few of them couldn’t read a spread sheet or contribute in any useful way to policy-making.”

He let a relieved breath out of him so loudly, it was like being beside a lorry when the driver releases the air-brakes.

“Now, in fairness,” I added, “I found just as many men on those boards who weren’t the sharpest, didn’t understand their function, couldn’t read a spreadsheet and wouldn’t have known a policy if it bit them in the whatsits. The key difference is that generations of those men have found their way onto boards, whereas women are only at the starting blocks. Oh, and the other point is that the majority of the women on boards where I served were clinically clear, thoughtful, read their briefing material in advance and contributed wisely.”

The presence of women undoubtedly changes the dynamic on those exclusively male boards. How could it not? Men on such boards tend to circulate with other highly successful men, many of whom went to the same schools or kinds of schools, play the same kind of games, share the same kind of social life.

When they need a new board member, they automatically start rifling through the names of people from within that cohort; men like themselves, with whom they know they will work well. It would require an extra effort to come up with the names of women who might suit and, absent the pressure government ministers put on state bodies, it tends not to happen. Because of the general belief that these things should come about naturally, over time, introduce Big Brother — sorry, Big Sister — interventions and it becomes unpleasant. Which may explain why, when MEP Nessa Childers asked 100 Irish companies to sign a pledge to put more women in their boardrooms, she got “very, very few responses”.

ARGUABLY the best manifesto on this issue was produced by a former British government minister, Mervyn Davies. Because he’s a man, Mr Davies can get away with saying things none of the sisterhood could say. Like calling the men in charge of most of Britain’s big companies “prehistoric monsters”.

His seminal report, Women on Boards, published in February 2011, is available in its crisp totality on the internet. Mr Davies deals in data, not feelings, and so he put a single statement at the front of his report: “At the current rate of change, it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK.”

This is much more than a women’s rights issue. It’s a loss of potential issue. It’s a failure to recognise the possibility that the changed dynamic consequent on women surfacing in significant numbers in the boardrooms of major business entities might be an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.

The one thing each and every board of each and every organisation which contributed to the global economic meltdown, from Bear Stearns to Anglo Irish Bank, has in common is a board dominated by men.

Fair-mindedness requires us to see this as correlative, rather than causative of the disaster. But Christine Lagarde recently went beyond such fair-mindedness, suggesting that the disaster might have been preventable, given better gender balance on boards.

“If there’d been Lehman Sisters,” she opined, “maybe we wouldn’t have had Lehman Brothers”.

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