Gender quotas: Aspiring to partnership

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Jack Downton
Managing Director
The Influence Business Ltd
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While compulsory gender quotas for the number of women holding board positions did not pass the EU vote on 14 November, tough new measures forcing companies to achieve a 40% female board head count by 2020, or face sanctions, did.

The government didn't support the idea of gender quotas. Currently, the percentage of UK board positions held by women is around 16, slightly better than the EU average of 14, but far less than the 40% target. Complicating the issue is the result of a survey published in The Daily Telegraph recently which revealed that only 4% of women actually aspire to sit on the board.

The upshot of the vote last week is that companies will need to demonstrate that they are putting in place mechanisms to drive up the number of female board members and report on their progress.  But how can companies, and more to the point, partnership firms increase the percentage of women in senior positions without a quota to pull-up the numbers and without a strong push of demand from women themselves?

There is a strong business case for more women in business and professional partnerships, in particular. There is no difference technically between them and men and they have strong attributes to offer such as, empathy, strong verbal and communication skills and a more collaborative, team-orientated leadership style. Women’s rapport and relationship building skills are a significant advantage in managing relationships and more and more clients want female partners on their advisory teams.

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27th Nov 2012 16:27

Where do these ideas come from?

Any woman of my acquaintance would be outraged that their promotion to the board/partnership was motivated not by any particular merit or recognition of their skills/talents but the fact that we will face some sort of penalty unless we get the "gender balance" right.



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27th Nov 2012 17:01

I agree with you Roland. I would hate to get a promotion and then question if it's in order to avoid penalties or is it because of my ability?

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28th Nov 2012 08:09

Haha ... what about the promotions

.. that men/women get because they happen to be mates or supporters of the decision makers? It doesn't seem to bother them that they got the job!

Let's wake up. A lot of high profile appointments are absolutely nothing to do with skill, experience, capability, etc. The 'best' person is over overlooked and the ones who do get it is quite often because their face fits, they can be manipulated, they are willing to turn a blind eye, etc.

Why do people with suspect pasts get high profile positions? We have aired this question quite frequently on AWeb lately and it is absolutely nothing to do with gender.

Oh dear ... now I've put the cat among the pigeons.

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28th Nov 2012 14:14

The Old Boys Network

Is certainly alive & well but this has always been an informal arrangement.

I cannot think of any affirmative action/reverse discrimination schemes in history that have been regarded as successful.


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28th Nov 2012 17:15


Again, as with so many issues, the key is making people aware that there is something to consider, so ,rather than taking the easiest or, quite often, automatic course of action there may be a hesitation and discussion over whether there might be another way.

With most women being in their traditional "home" role during the 19th & 20th centuries the male dominance of business had a long time to become entrenched as did the male way of doing business, let's call it "survival of the fittest". With two world wars and the breakdown of social structures the gender balance started to tip but I suppose society has to decide whether it wants to right a past wrong as soon as poss or let it takes it's course over perhaps another 100 years.

I still believe that discrimination of any kind is wrong but, if you strip away the tradition, class & other built in inequalities and two people are equally qualified for the job then it would seem healthy to pick the person who will help bring a more representative outcome, be that in age, disability, gender, race, sexuality or, in my case a love of vegetables!

If an unrepresentitive person knows that this is the employer's policy then perhaps they are more likely to apply for the job. This has to be better than silence and the perception that, from the moment you get to the interview, you're at an automatic disadvantage.

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By pennylj
30th Nov 2012 12:07

Are we reading the same article here?


1.    There is a strong business case for more women in business

2.    Businesses and professional firms have several options

a.    accommodate women who want to be both mothers and board directors/partners by encouraging part-time and remote working

b.    men dominate decision-making in the board room and professional services [is this a good thing for business?]

c.    unconscious bias … men are the dominant brand in business [is this good for business?]

Holding the points above in mind -

Businesses and firms should select female directors or partners on their own  strengths, accepting how important they are to the success of the business

Here here!

PS Have we not been discriminating in favour of men for centuries ...?

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30th Nov 2012 12:09

I completely agree with everything Paul above me has said.

However, I like to think that to oppose his final comment you should not be at an automatic advantage either. Be it for race class gender or the fact you're a mate/cousin/boarding school chum. Hopefully one day we will get to this point where people are assessed on their ability not siply fitting into a box nor being a big charmer. Skill should be paramount and held above all form of discrimination, positive or negative.


Surely then we would then all be more satisfied with our achievements in the knowledge they are based on our ability to perform?

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30th Nov 2012 12:40


@Penny - I agree with your questions and understand the frustration however, re your last line, if discrimination in favour of men (ie against women) was wrong then so is discrimination the other way around.

Your highlight in 2a is a good example of what I talked about.  You strip away all the automatic inbuilt discrimination, such as working arrangements, the fact that women are the only ones that give birth, the colour & design of a man's tie or the makeup either wears, till you get to the person and their skills, strengths & weaknesses and if all else is equal you are free to make a positive decision to favour the under represented sector in your organisation.

If you make it clear in the application and recruitment process that this is your policy then you may hope to avoid what I've seen happen all too often, known as the Maggie strategy, ie a woman who attempts to beat the men at their own game.

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By pennylj
to shaun king
30th Nov 2012 12:59

Absolutely - two wrongs don't


Absolutely - two wrongs don't make a right, as my Granny often said. 

I did not mean that we should discriminate in favour of women.

I did mean that we have been discriminating in favour of men for centuries, tho', because that's worth bearing in mind. And we still are. 

The point we need to reach is the one where the best person for the particular job is selected and we don't arrive there by women 'man-ning' up (the Maggie strategy you refer to).

I suspect that the discomfort (fear, even) those behaviours engender on both sides is part of the reason why women are not better represented at Board level already.  

Here's to appreciating and then employing individuals for their strengths and skills.


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30th Nov 2012 14:19

'Family Life'

"While some women manage brilliantly a family life with the demands of partnership, others opt for a different work-life balance taking themselves out of the promotion selection pool.  "

When both parents are equally responsible for raising children, and both equally take time off to to so, then I believe that the imbalance could start to reduce...  At the moment there is still the assumption that the mother must bear the responsibility for the majority of childcare/family life, and therefore takes a lot more time out of work to do so. 

It is still seen as unusual for the father to take more time off for this.  Unfortunately, even if this is not the case for some women, sometimes people can (wrongly) have this at the back of their mind and think that they would be 'less committed' or 'taking themselves out of the promotion selection pool' in their career due to the time off... 

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04th Dec 2012 11:24

Is it possible to make partner and still have a life?

From reading through this article, I got a sense that the authors were asking the professions, this question. Is it possible to support your female talent to achieve their potential at work and get them into more partnership positions.

The 1st question to ask is whether females want to make partnership in today's professional service firms. From our research for our book 'How to make partner and still have a life', it's not just about women but also about men. The bar for partnership is getting higher and the amount of partnership positions is shrinking. The average partner in a professional services firm is male, stressed, over 50 and normally on their 2nd marriage. Is it any wonder that so many young professionals look upwards and don't aspire to a long hours, high stress, rewards later ideal? 

Then, you look at that old chestnut about whether clients actually need their professional advisors on tap 24/7? The reality is no, and is proved by the fact that most large firms in 2009/10 actively promoted flexible and temporary part-time working to their staff. 

That's my tuppence.

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04th Dec 2012 11:51

There's a lot of baggage with being a "partner"

[email protected] - seven years ago I was close to the average you set out, before going back out on my own.  I've been through a variety of partnerships with the last converting to a Ltd Company and I have to say that, even though the relationships & work are identical under both vehicles, there's a psychological millstone with a partnership that I didn't feel with being a director.

I fell out with a partner in a partnership and with co-directors in the Ltd Company and the latter was a far easier transition to manage.  I'd add that despite there being 3 middle aged stressed male directors it also felt easier to take on a new female director on a part-time basis following the arrival of her child than I think it would have had we been a partnership.

As well as my own experience I've also seen many client partnerships come to grief in a sticky mess.

As I say it's a subconscious thing and maybe it's just me, but I'd never get involved in another partnership.


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By Oppco
04th Dec 2012 11:58

What firm in their right mind would discriminate on any grounds in order to hold back their best members of staff?

I run a small practice and discrimination is inconceivable here. Maybe in larger organisations the politics and rivalries cause problems; I hated my times at large businesses for those reasons.


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04th Dec 2012 12:50

Thanks Paul


Good to hear your own experiences and the fact that you are now out of the other side. Is it the partnership thing which is the problem, the the people around us in the partnership which is the problem?

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04th Dec 2012 13:11


It really is time we came out of the EU....what a bunch of morons.

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04th Dec 2012 13:56

Not going to happen

Until men start giving birth and being mum (so to speak) it will always be unbalanced

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to johnjenkins
04th Dec 2012 14:18

don't say that. We'll get a fine for that too

olmotors wrote:

Until men start giving birth and being mum (so to speak) it will always be unbalanced

Don't say that! we will get a fine for that too.

What about Gay people? Transgenders and people with one leg?

People should attain these positions by merit. That should not be discriminatory whether by custom or statute.

I am in favour of more women, but not for legislation requiring a token woman on the board.


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04th Dec 2012 13:56


It is easier to define a person's role, responsibilites and remuneration/earnings, as a director than as a partner and, most importantly I suppose, there is a formal 2 stage progression in being a director first with the prospect of a shareholding later.  Once you reach equity partner however (and some do from Day1), there tends to be a lack of formal structure which leads to gaps between perceptions and expectations.

In theory it should make no difference but, if nothing else, I've experienced more willingness (perhaps because of company law?) to commit thoughts and plans to writing in a Ltd Company as well as the fact that, in many partnerships, the agreement, if it even exists, is inadequate and is only valid for a short length of time, whereas you can have more certainty with a company constitution, service contracts and shareholders' agreements.

Or maybe it's just my age?


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04th Dec 2012 14:00

@olmotors - unbalanced?

Only if you want it to be or are unable to remove your blinkers to see a person.

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By cwilson
04th Dec 2012 14:13

40% (Tongue firmly in cheek!)

How can this be achieved in a one man limited company?

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to lionofludesch
04th Dec 2012 14:21

cheek to cheek

cwilson wrote:

How can this be achieved in a one man limited company?

Cross dressing! Doh

next question

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05th Dec 2012 11:29

Partnership/directorship in a large company? No thanks!

Leaving aside the profession for a bit, i'm going to take issue with this:

by encouraging part-time and remote working

This completely ignores the reality in most businesses that directors and partners may be required at a moments notice to go off and sort out a problem in Angola (a for instance), or sort out a deal that requires working 3-4 days 24/7.  Anyone that has been near deal making bankers will know that they work extremely long hours, fly enormous numbers of air miles and generally have little or no social life except when it falls between deals and attending charity events.  Why would any sane person want to do this (if not hugely driven by personal goals/ambitions/money/etc)?

Part time, flexible and home working works well for staff who aren't crucial to the business- you're basically saying 'we can do without you for large periods of time'.  Fits well with a lot of professions but not so well in companies that deal with highly time critical events.

The other issue companies face is the rest of the world hasn't quite caught up with the west's enlightened view of the role of women in society, and sending a woman to negotiate a contract in certain countries just won't work, and it would be foolish to do so- trying to impose our values on them isn't going to win you any friends.

I have spoken to several overseas contacts about this move and they are all laughing so hard at the barriers the EU create for our own companies- if it's not taxes and environmental and other legislation it's something else.

I'm all for more women in positions of power (if they are crazy enough to want to be- see working hours above) but imposing a quota is not going to achieve anything other than to stigmatise all those appointed as 'the 40%ers' and undermine those that have achieved their positions on merit.

There has to be a better way of ensuring those with the ability and desire get the positions they deserve- frankly if you're not promoting the best person for the job then you are failing your company and maybe shareholders could take issue with board appointments if the decision making process of who to appoint was made more transparent?

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By pennylj
to kiwilondon99
05th Dec 2012 14:13




"in most businesses ...  directors and partners may be required at a moments notice to go off and sort out a problem in Angola ..."

Indeed, but I don't think you have to be male and/or childless to manage this.

"Why would any sane person want to do this (if not hugely driven by personal goals/ambitions/money/etc)?"

Some people do, and who are we to judge them for it? 

"Part time, flexible and home working works well for staff who aren't crucial to the business - you're basically saying 'we can do without you for large periods of time'."

Do you really believe this because it is not true.

Personally I work from home at hours that suit me when I want to get a lot of high quality, fee paying work that is crucial to our business done, without too much interruption.

Flexible and homeworking don't mean part time. Part timers can be highly effective workers - more so than full timers, arguably.

If to be "the best person for the job" one has to work full time, in office hours, at the office, the pool of talent may be so restricted that the company cannot recruit the "best person for the job" after all.     

"the world hasn't quite caught up with the west's enlightened view of the role of women in society ... trying to impose our values on them isn't going to win you any friends."

That is an interesting attitude. Are you saying that discrimination on the basis of disability, skin colour, gender, sexuality etc is just a matter of 'values'?

I think discrimination is wrong, and that we choose not to do it because discrimination is wrong.

I think we may win countless friends, both now and in the future, precisely because we choose *not* to discriminate against these individuals.

The daughters of the people who refuse to do business with you today might just be the next [insert name of your favourite successful business person here].   

If one were to include all of the groups against whom one currently discriminates, by how much might one's customer base, turnover and profitability increase, I wonder?   






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05th Dec 2012 14:35

Creating Shared Values

CSVs aren't just for spreadsheet geeks!

I spent years working to other's timetables and urgencies, locked in an office for 2-3 days with teams of lawyers & accountants (not a woman in sight) "to get the deal done" and yes, if that's whet does it for you then find like minded people and lock yourselves in.

Alternatively, decide on your own values and practices based on balance and fairness and tell others "that's how we do business".  Far from being restrictive it is empowering, enables flexibility and will influence others, who rush around to other people's tunes, to join you.

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