Richard Branson Thinks Government Should "Force" Women Onto Corporate Boards

He suggests politicians “change laws to force a situation to where there’s 50% women on boards.” It’s already the law in France — would it work in the U.S.?

Czarek Sokolowski / AP

Billionaire Virgin founder and CEO/host to Kate Winslet’s wedding Richard Branson has some ideas about how to get more female representation in the business world: have the government force it with a mandate or quota. In a recent interview with LinkedIn, he said:

“I would encourage companies to work really hard towards getting a 50/50 split of women on their board — even to the extent of encouraging politicians to actually change laws to force a situation to where there’s 50% women on boards. Because in countries where they’ve done it — like Norway and Sweden — the companies seem to have benefited from it.”

He’s referring to programs put in place by the Norwegian and Swedish governments that effectively force companies to make their corporate boards at least 40% female. The programs have been a success, and Spain and the Netherlands followed suit. The U.K. considered instituting a women-in-the-boardroom quota, but voted against it, deciding a mandate wasn’t the best way to go about putting women in leadership positions. In the U.S., women currently hold 16.6% of corporate board seats.

Hillary Sales, a law and management professor at Washington University St. Louis with expertise in corporate governance, says that “quotas have been extremely effective in shifting the balance on boards,” but that they’re unlikely to be passed as law in the U.S.

In France, companies have until 2020 to fulfill the 40% quota, but many of the companies have already begun adding women to their boards in a big way. Says Sales, “it takes time. You have to start adding and keep adding.”

“Quotas are not ‘the American way,’” she adds. “Companies just don’t want to be mandated about anything.”

But at the same time, she says she’s not terribly surprised to see a male CEO like Branson advocate for quotas, especially as pressure for diversity mounts. Sales admits: “Several [American] CEOs and board members have said to me on the side that they sometimes wish we had the quotas.”

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