JON SALISBURY: Is positive discrimination in business ridiculous?

Our monthly columnist and industry veteran ponders the question.
Publish date:

Of the world’s three largest toy companies, only two have women on their Board of Directors and one has none.

In the US, Hasbro has Lisa Gersh and Tracy Leinbach while Mattel has Frances Ferguson, Andrea Rich and Kathy White Lloyd, but Europe’s LEGO has not one female on its top table. This fact is particularly surprising as LEGO CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp is one of industry advocacy group Dansk Industri’s ‘ambassadors for more women in management’. Oh, the irony, and unsurprisingly it’s chafed the sensibilities somewhat of staff internally at the Danish company, with employees directly questioning Knudstorp on his decision.

“It would have been quite good to have a woman in a top position,” said Agnete Gamborg, LEGO’s senior director of project management. “There was a natural reaction in the company when we saw that the board consisted solely of men.”

Knudstorp’s defence was that “there were very few women to choose from”. LEGO’s upper-level management has actually seen a decrease in female employees in the last two years.

The company told the Ministry for Gender Equality in 2010 that it wanted to fill 35 per cent of its managerial positions, but that figure only reached 23 per cent in 2012.

The politically correct lobby had a field day with LEGO earlier this year when the company released the Friends range.

Even the Danish Minister for Gender Equality accused the line of reinforcing traditional gender roles but later apologised for his “bombastic and blunt manner”.

The last laugh, though, was with the toy company which sold twice as many Friends sets as expected.

Of course, some people believe that positive discrimination in business is ridiculous. You can’t base business rationale on emotions, they argue.

But surely a toy business needs feminine input, others contend. LEGO has plenty of female employees in senior positions, but what unique qualities would they contribute on the Board? Plans for EU minimum quotas of women on company boards were postponed in October, after running into tough opposition within the European Commission. 

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, seeking backing for a law obliging companies to appoint at least 40 per cent of its top-table seats to women, insisted the battle was not over, despite lawyers warning the plan might be unenforceable.

“I will not give up,” Ms Reding said, but the setback will boost the move’s opponents, including UK Business Secretary Vince Cable. However, Socialist MEPs said Ms Reding should carry on pressing to get the quota system into EU law.

Gender quotas have already been introduced in domestic law in France, Italy, Spain, Iceland and Belgium.

Norway, which is not an EU member, has had a 40 per cent minimum boardroom requirement for women for a decade.

I know little about the Norwegian toy market, so can’t comment on how that has influenced Norwegian
toy sales...

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