By Daniel Hunter

Women 1st, the initiative that aims to increase the number of women in senior roles in hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism, is calling for views on whether or not the Government should introduce quotas for women on boards.

In 2011, a report by Lord Davies recommended all FTSE 100 companies should have 25% female representation on their boards by 2015 but recent figures suggest that the rate of appointments has slowed drastically, with female representation currently remaining at 17%.

The hospitality and tourism industry faces a similar situation — women make up almost 60% of the workforce, but only around 6% of board level roles. In passenger transport, just 25% of the entire workforce is female.

Speaking at Women 1st’s latest networking event at B.Hive, Covent Garden, women’s empowerment guru and Women 1st patron, Lynne Franks, and CEO for Sodexo UK and Ireland, Debbie White, shared their own personal views that quotas would be a positive move for UK plc.

Lynne Franks commented: “I was at the original breakfast meeting chaired by Lord Davies and, when he talked about quotas, none of us thought it was necessary. Since then, there has been a huge amount of work on getting more women into leadership roles, but the reality is, they’re not there. So my view has shifted and, personally, I am very keen on having quotas for as long as it’s necessary until we get to that point.

“I understand that isn’t everyone’s view or, in fact, the view of Women 1st, which is not about positive discrimination or quotas. Our initiative focuses on the clear business case for having women in senior roles, enlightening businesses about the benefits of mixed-gender leadership and providing support for organisations that want to achieve a better balance of men and women at the top.

“However, the topic of quotas continues to be hotly debated in the media and among women’s networks” — a show of hands at the event revealed that opinion was split — “and Women 1st is keen to gather people’s views as to whether public opinion is changing.”

Debbie White stressed that while Sodexo has exceeded its own targets for women in leadership in the UK, she personally feels that more needs to be done across UK business as a whole.

She commented: “Six years ago, I did not agree with quotas. I was absolutely anti-quotas. I thought in the rush to make the numbers, women who were not the best qualified may get appointed “But, if you look at the statistics, over 60% of our graduates are women. In my era, over 40% of graduates were women. There are enough very good women out there to do really good jobs, so not having enough women is not the issue.

"Systemic issues such as the organizational culture, practices and processes that identify and develop talent, the lack of adequate role models and perhaps most importantly our own unconscious biases have got to change if we are to make progress.

“If we had to vote on whether we should have a quota, I would vote for it. I know it’s controversial and it is not a view widely shared, but at this point, progress has not been good enough and quotas would be a way of ensuring everyone takes responsibility. Gender diversity is not somebody else’s responsibility — we all have a role to play.”

Sodexo’s UK business has already exceeded its own aspirational target of having 25% women in senior leadership roles by 2015 (a target that was in place before Lord Davies set his benchmark), with 31% of its senior team made up of women, but it is still working proactively to increase the balance, particularly of women with profit and loss responsibility.

Debbie added: “I know the group CEO wants to increase the target, even though we’re not quite there across the world yet. He has the support of SWIFT (Sodexo’s global women’s leadership group) where the organisation’s most senior women come together and help work out how we are going to get there. Just giving people a target doesn’t mean it’s going to happen; so revising job descriptions and reviewing candidate slates and making sure the processes are in place is vital.”

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