Time to force women into boardrooms?

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In pretty much every position I have ever held, for 30 years, my immediate line manager or the boss most important to the way I did my job has been a woman.

That was true when I started as a cub reporter at the Investors Chronicle almost 30 years ago. It was true at the Independent 25 years ago. It was true when I was at the Financial Times, for part of my stint there in the 1990s. It was true at the Sunday Telegraph, before I joined the BBC at the beginning of 2006. And it has been true for all my six years at the BBC.

But what has always struck me as slightly odd is that, with one exception, the boss above my female boss and the uber boss in the organisation as a whole was always a man (the exception was Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson, owner of the FT - although the editors of the FT have consistently been men).

Given that my female bosses have usually been both ambitious and first rate - and when not absolutely brilliant, certainly not inferior to the rather dull men around them - I struggle to find an explanation for the "men-only-rise" phenomenon that isn't (at least in part) discrimination and prejudice.

So if your personal experience is anything like mine, you may not find it surprising or shocking that the European Commission's female Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship commissioner has lost patience with Europe's private sector and wants to see a mandatory increase in female representation on boards: she wants 30% of big companies directors to be women by 2015 and 40% by 2020.

For most European countries, including the UK, her targets would require anything from a doubling to a trebling in the number of women on boards.

Now for years it seemed obvious to me that the operation of the market would correct this failure to select and promote the best people. The allocation of human capital would become gender blind, simply because companies that favour Y chromosomes in the executive suite and boardroom would over time recognise that they were doing themselves harm - they would notice that their most effective competitors were those fishing in a talent pool of the whole world, not just half of it.

I have to say that if my analysis was correct, the correction of this market anomaly has not exactly been rapid. Recent research by the leading headhunters, Spencer Stuart, shows that only 5.7% of the executive, board-level directors of FTSE 150 companies (that's the UK's 150 biggest businesses) are women and that 21% do not have a woman on the board.

There has been a mini-surge in the recruitment of female non-executives in the wake of last year's government-backed report from Lord [Mervyn] Davies, calling for at least 25% of each FTSE 100 listed company's board to be female.

Spencer Stuart says that 17.5% of non-execs in the FTSE 150 are women, and the FT this morning reports that a Cranfield study to be released next week shows a rise over the past year from 12.5% to just under 15% in the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards.

Now the approach in Britain to increasing the representation of women on boards is a voluntary one. By contrast in France a bill was passed last year requiring 20% of directors of listed French companies to be women by 2014 and 40% by 2017.

There have been two striking consequences, according to Spencer Stuart. First French boards are broadening the skills criteria when recruiting new directors, so as to give them a bigger choice of women when making their selection (they are looking at candidates with legal, communications and HR expertise, and not just operations or finance executives - and they are also recruiting entrepreneurs, civil servants and consultants).

Second the majority of new director appointments have been women.

So in one sense at least, compulsion seems to work. The question, of course, is whether compulsion will produce inferior companies - will businesses take "any old woman" on to the board just to hit the mandatory quota?

Is that really a risk? Is it impossible to be confident of getting capable women to fill board room positions to a deadline?

If it were impossible to find such top-quality director material from a search of half the world, then we may have a bigger problem than just the shortage of women in the boardroom: the implication would be that the jobs market doesn't work effectively for women at any level, and surely the evidence is not quite so grim.