Stuart looked me in the eye as we sat eating lunch and said, "What if we're losing just as many great men from going for senior leadership for the same reasons we lose great women from the talent pool?"
It's a great question. As the board member responsible for People and Culture at Grant Thornton I am obsessed with two fundamental issues:
• What are the skills and behaviours needed from our people to create value for our clients – dynamic growing organisations around the world?
• How do we attract, retain and develop the very best people to deliver that value?
It's clear that the skills and behaviours needed to create value in tomorrow's world are different from those that got us here. Leaders need to bring a different style: one that helps others think, rather than telling them what to do.
So I wonder if we're focusing on the right questions. Are there lots of women desperately wanting to be on boards being held back or could it be that the focus on quotas is shining a light in the wrong place?
The 2013 International Business Report from Grant Thornton shows that globally, women in senior management positions represent 24% of the whole. While this is an improvement of 3% over last year, it is timely on International Women's Day to notice that it is equivalent to 2010 levels.
While female input to senior management seems to now be recognised as a real business issue, we're not making progress quickly enough. Especially if we truly believe that leveraging all our talent and true diversity is critical to the competitiveness of the UK in the global economy.
There have been some loud and consistent calls for the introduction of quotas. However 96% of women in senior leadership positions don’t support this as a solution, and 55% of businesses in our international survey are also against them. Yet pressure for quotas persists.
Our report reveals another simple correlation: where there is high economic growth and a prevailing social norm of women working, then the percentages of women in senior management are double that in other economies. Eastern European countries typically have over 40% of women in senior management compared to the UK at 19%.
It strikes me that other information we know about the workplace leads us where we need to go. For instance, low levels of employee engagement are an issue across the world. Traditional preconceptions are also being dispelled, autonomy in the workplace and being able to master what one does are as, if not more, important than financial incentives. It also cannot be ignored that in the UK it remains the societal norm that men take the role of primary provider and that women assume the role of primary carer.
For women to choose to stay in the workplace and pursue progression to senior management levels they need to have a compelling purpose and meaning to do so. It cannot just be assumed there are legions of women waiting to take up these roles if quotas were put in place.
It could be possible that the UK’s current maternity system, while set up to enable women to balance having children with careers, may place a psychological barrier to the return to work. And it could also be possible that the current model of leadership just doesn't look that attractive to pursue.
Without a compelling reason to drive through the barriers, many may be opting for different career and life choices. It may be that many men under the societal norm of provider also come to a point where they look at what's currently expected of leaders and say, "I don't want that, it's not for me" and seek alternatives.
Regardless of gender, the loss of any talent from our workforce is a massive issue for us as a country. And so perhaps "Do we need quotas?" is the wrong question.
Sacha Romanovitch is the board member responsible for People and Culture at Grant Thornton