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Winds of change sweeping women on to boardrooms

Here are my questions for Nicola Sturgeon.

As we ponder Scotland's future, does she think men should hold the balance of power in boardrooms? Is that why she says at least 40% of company directors should be women? Is she implying it's all right if 60% are male?

It's important. Why aspire to have women in the minority? What's wrong with at least half of board members being women? Why are we so mealy-mouthed about issues like this? Men are in decline in board rooms across Europe - even in America.

Where once they commanded 100% of the power in the business world, by the millennium they had slipped to 93.8%. By 2011 the percentage of male directors in FTSE-100 companies was down to 87.5% and last year their hold had slid again to 82.7%.

There are only six major UK companies with all male boards.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's deputy leader, wants to hurry the process along in an independent Scotland. Her suggestion of a minimum 40% quota would be backed by legislation if necessary. Cue predictable horror from the leaders of industry.

"It smacks of totalitarianism," said David Watt, executive director of the Institute of Directors, Scotland. "Are 40% of applicants female?" he asked.

Iain McMillan, chief executive of CBI Scotland, said: "We do want more women on boards and we have been campaigning for that for some time. But to legislate is not wise."

I don't know how long the CBI's campaign has been running but a 10% difference since the millennium doesn't strike me as a runaway success story. In most businesses, a campaign demonstrating that sort of progress results in heads on plates.

Whether business likes it or not, the boardroom tide is turning. Women number 52% of the population. Women are as well educated as men, sometimes better. They can do the same jobs, take decisions at the same level and wield power with equal effect - if with different emphasis. That being the case, I see no reason why we should limit female participation to 40% or 50%; or any percentage at all. But that is stage two.

Ms Sturgeon's promise (or threat depending on your viewpoint) is not breaking new territory. In fact, she's trailing the European field. Norway led the way in 2003. It introduced compulsory quotas and threatened non-compliant companies with shutdown. Female membership of boards rose to 40% by 2009.

Iceland, France, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Germany have quotas. Angela Merkel has joined forces with the Social Democrats to allot 30% of non-executive posts to women by 2016. It applies to all listed companies. If a woman cannot be found to fill a post, the seat must be left vacant.

It, too, is a depressingly modest aspiration; as is the new rule introduced by the European Commission last year. It states that companies listed in the EU with more than 250 workers should have 40% of women on their boards by 2020.

Already, women have brought measurable change in Norwegian companies with fewer lay-offs. It seems women are less likely to get rid of jobs as a first resort. They look to the long term and offer workers a sense of being stakeholders in the company. Their approach sits at odds with the trend of feeding the maw of the shareholder at any human cost.

It sounds like a return to sanity to me. It begs the question: could an avalanche of women directors effect a major cultural shift?

We'll find out soon enough. The wind of change is blowing across Europe and sensible companies will bend with it. I just wish it had more puff.

The difficulty is that, in countries where quotas exist, non-executive seats on the board have not translated into executive jobs for women. Women within the management structure of companies are still failing to reach the top.

In November 2012, the High Pay Commission in the UK published a report revealing Norway didn't boast even one female chief executive in a top company. The same was true of France, Germany, Japan, Belgium and Italy.

In the time it took women to rise to 35% of non executives, female executive directors had crept up only from 15% to 18%. Swedish women topped the league at 22%.

The UK looks pretty good in these league tables. Under its voluntary code (aiming at 25% of women on boards by 2015), female senior managers had risen to 19%. That is on a par with America which also has no quota but where 20 of the top companies in the S&P 500 have women chief executives.

With Britain and America near the top, can we say quotas are ineffective? I don't think so. I think it's more a case of some cultures needing more of a prod than others.

It's not just about men giving way. It's about women demanding their rightful place.

Inevitably, even without a recent contribution from Nigel Farage, motherhood is flagged up as the hurdle against which women crash.

Well, mankind does need the next generation and children need two parents. Once enough women are in positions of power, I think it will be within their intellectual ability to concoct family friendly working for both parents to share.

Surely such a system makes more economic sense than the present one of educating half the workforce (women) only to support them so poorly through child-bearing years that many of the most talented are lost to the economy.

Ms Sturgeon is right in seeing women as a resource for the country, as a reservoir of wealth creation. Women are the coming force and the more power they gain, the more they will adapt the rules to suit their needs.

It's a shift that shouldn't be resisted because it will benefit all.

Just take a look around to see what is happening under male control. In this testosterone-fuelled society, jobs are slashed at the hint of a dip in profits.

See how companies are structured to deliver increasing returns every year; how executives are ruthless in their need to deliver targets. If they do, they get a bonus. If they don't, they get the chop.

Look at the paucity of real opportunities for school leavers and graduates. Ask how young couples can hope to buy a home and start a family; and when they do, how can they afford decent child care?

Look at senior management, at a culture of long hours and stress.

Something needs to change to bring sanity to this shambles; to change the rules. It's what women will do. And to be effective they'll need to be running many more companies, perhaps the majority.

But men needn't worry. Women are hard-wired to be fair minded, so they're certain to have male quotas on boards.

Men, how would you feel about 40%? Happy? Or insulted?

According to an earlier online version of this article, the London Stock Exchange was one of only six major UK companies with all-male boards. In fact, the London Stock Exchange Group  recently appointed two female non-executive directors to its board: Sherry Coutu and Joanna Shields. Th group has had female representation on its Board for more than 12 years with only a brief gap of six months following the decision of Baroness Cohen (2001- June 2013) and Gay Huey Evans (2010 - June 2013) to step down in the summer. Dame Clara Furse also served as Chief Executive Officer of London Stock Exchange Group and a member of the board from 2001 - 2009.

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