Will Vince Cable get the answer he expects on all-female shortlists?

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There’s been a lot of media attention recently on a new report by the former head of diversity at HSBC and Nomura, on how to tackle the dramatic gender imbalance in the boardrooms of Britain’s top companies. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, I should say there has been a lot of attention on Vince Cable’s subsequent question to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as to whether all-female shortlists would be legal.

If you took the trouble to read most of the coverage you might come away with the impression that Vince Cable is in favour of such shortlists. Yet it seems that he has never actually said he is. Instead he seems to be simply exploring an option. And the answer he is likely to get from the EHRC – that they would contravene EU law on sexual discrimination and consequently cannot be mandated – may be the one he expects. Because, whatever you think of his politics, one thing that Vince Cable does not seem to be burdened with is naiveté.

The government’s aim to get more women onto the boards of major companies is certainly a laudable one. But I can’t help but feel that, like so many initiatives dictated by the short-term nature of British politics, much of their campaigning is treating symptoms, rather than the disease itself.

Diversity – of gender, race, culture, sexual orientation or a dozen other criteria – is a good thing. But in the real world of business it’s a good thing, not because it is ‘right’ in some vague philosophical sense, but because there is a solid and demonstrable case for it. Time and again research from some of the world’s best business schools and consultancies has shown that access to wide range of views, approaches and experiences makes organisations more effective, more profitable and less at risk of the sort of behaviour that led us to the great crisis of 2008. However, simply parachuting a few ‘different’ people in at senior level is unlikely to have much real effect unless the overall culture is ready to accept them.

And this is where the real work needs to be done – in making the system understand the value of diversity and consequently accepting it as the norm. The problem about this, of course, is that it takes time and a lot of sustained, consistent effort to achieve. And that’s not necessarily something that fits in with the political agenda, particularly when a general election is looming over the horizon.

Sue Brooks is Executive Vice President at Pinstripe & Ochre House

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