The European Union’s doomed attempt to set boardroom quotas for women could be dismissed as Brussels lunacy akin to rules on straight bananas or banning proper light bulbs, but the objective was sound even if the method was madness.
There should be no barrier on women becoming directors other than their ability and their willingness to join a board. But demanding that 40 per cent of seats on supervisory boards at listed companies go to women was not the way to achieve greater representation.
The EU justice commissioner might have been able to force companies to recruit women but she could not force women to take the jobs. Appointing token women helps neither the company nor the many women who were given directorships because of their talents, not to make up a quota.
Although quotas exist in some countries – notably non-EU Norway but also France and Belgium – a substantial number of members of the EU college of commissioners oppose compulsory appointments of women. For once, this was not just Britain being bolshie: almost half the 27 EU members were against.
But that should not be the end of the campaign to get more women onto boards. However, the process starts at the bottom of the organisational ladder rather than at the entrance to the C-suite. It requires more girls to take commercial subjects at school and university; needs more women to go into management; involves more female senior executives and necessitates companies regarding women as more than mere part-time non-executives.
That means a change of attitudes all the way up the ladder, in the educational system as well as in business. Quotas at the top are not the answer – and for once, the European Union seems to have applied common sense.