When persuasion is not enough

aksaroya —  8 May 2013 — 1 Comment

The contentious issue of how to ensure enough women are appointed to boards of companies is dividing opinion, with some insisting that mandatory quotas are the only way to effect real change, says Errol Oh

diversity

It has been almost two years since the Malaysian Government set the target of having at least 30 per cent women at the decision-making level in the corporate sector by 2016. This is part of the country’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP). Leveraging women’s talent to raise productivity is a policy measure under human capital development, one of the ETP’s six Strategic Reform Initiatives.

`The decision-making level in the corporate sector’, although not officially defined, is widely understood to mean directors, CEOs and other C-suite positions, particularly those of large corporations and the influential government-linked investment companies.

Most people agree the immediate and more realistic goal is to raise the proportion of women directors of listed companies to 30 per cent. However, the pursuit of this target is not driven by a mandate; the Government prefers to rely on persuasion instead of legislation. It is perhaps time to reconsider this. Malaysia is not alone in rejecting the use of compulsory quotas as a way to get more women into boardrooms.

For example, in the United States, there has been no serious discussion on the subject, although board diversity is a hot topic there, as it is elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, countries such as Norway, France, Spain, Italy and Belgium have made it a must for their listed companies to have certain ratios of women directors.

Last November, the European Commission proposed that by 2020, 40 per cent of the non-executives on the boards of companies listed on member states’ stock exchanges are to be women. The imposition of quotas for women directors is open to debate. The worry is that they will lead to tokenism – women will be made directors more to satisfy the quotas than because they are qualified and can add value. This may undermine the argument that companies with more women directors tend to perform better. Some who oppose the idea regard quotas as patronising to women.

One of them is Mai-Lill Ibsen, who once had almost 200 boardroom seats in Norwegian companies. In an interview with The Guardian in January, she said: ‘I’ve never seen the glass ceiling, I’m against quotas, they are discriminatory in a way. I feel we [women] are so strong we don’t need that.’

On the other side of the divide are those who have a similar view as that of Viviane Reding, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. More than once, she has said she is not a fan of quotas but likes what they do. That is an important point.

Mandatory quotas for women directors force decision makers – in Malaysia, these are almost always men – to include women as candidates. This is likely to make a difference, especially in the selection of independent directors. Often, boards of directors are seen as thinly veiled old boys’ clubs, where even independent directors are associates of the controlling shareholders.

It is not the best setting for good stewardship that protects minority shareholders’ interests. However, there is little incentive for change if the ratio requirement is voluntary. Having women directors will not automatically improve a company’s governance, but if male dominance is no longer acceptable in just about every sphere of life, why should it persist in the corporate boardroom?

Errol Oh is executive editor of The Star

This article first appeared in Accounting and Business, China edition, April 2013

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