Ajaz Ahmed: Quotas bring only short-term tokenism

Business Secretary Vince Cable has said that the Government is to launch an ambitious plan to bring more ethnic minorities into Britain’s most powerful boardrooms.

Under these plans, the aim is for one in five directors of FTSE 100 companies to be from a non-white background within five years. The initiative follows Lord Davies’ review into women in the boardroom, which began in 2011 and has had some success in increasing the numbers of women in senior business roles.

But is this a good thing? Do we actually need quotas?

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My father’s generation came to this country to work in the textile mills.

Most of them were uneducated but times have changed.

We now don’t think twice when we see an Asian doctor, surgeon, nurse, dentist, optician, pharmacist, lawyer or accountant.

We often read the success stories of Asian business people and are sometimes surprised when we find out that some of the well-known brands that we love are owned by Asians.

Someone recently came to see me at our law firm in Leeds. It turns out he was a Scotsman and the first thing he said to me was “Did you know that the pre-recorded announcement in your lift is a Scottish voice?” He was so pleased he even tweeted about it. I feel the same way when I meet an Asian person sitting on the board of a company, I feel like tweeting about it to the world. And that’s the problem, we just don’t have many Asian people selected to sit on the boards of companies.

If we are to have more diversity on boards, to get the numbers up, quotas must be a good thing, right? No, I don’t agree. Companies should not be forced to take people on just to meet a target. I wouldn’t want to be selected just because a company needed to meet a target number.

Have we got a problem? Yes we have. Boardrooms are simply not representative of the world we now live in and of the customers their companies serve. Something needs to change and we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it – it’s a subject that will certainly generate a lot of debate.

The last time I looked, an online article about the Government’s intention to change the rules had attracted 294 comments.

Some had to be removed because they broke the house rules and many were clearly racist in the way they talked about the subject.

Many people have got strong views but only express them when they can hide behind made-up names. I’ve also noticed that on some sites the most common name is ‘Anonymous’. I didn’t realise it was such a popular name.

So if quotas are not the solution what should we do?

Well, the chairmen and CEOs of companies have got to be more aware of the world they live in.

They must be more aware of the customers that spend money with them. They need to recognise the mix of people that work for them.

They can learn a lot from the public sector, which is very good at employing people from all ethnic backgrounds.

Is change possible by itself? Can people change? Probably not.

One of the observations I’ve made in my time in business is that people are very good at making well-crafted arguments for why there shouldn’t be any change. They are well-versed in explaining why you don’t understand and why the status quo can’t be changed.

Most of the time I just listen and don’t say anything, it’s not worth the effort arguing.

I have never spoken to anyone about this particular subject. I am only doing so now because I saw that the Government is talking about imposing quotas. I wanted to add my voice at this early stage because I feel so strongly about it.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I met a non-white person who sits on a board. That means there has to be a problem.

We can’t carry on with lots of Asian professionals in business but very few moving to sit on the board.

That change must come from businesses themselves, because otherwise the Government will impose these quotas – and that’s plain wrong. It has the potential to breed resentment and bring only short-term tokensim rather than a long-term solution to this problem.

And if you’re wondering whether I ever get asked to sit on the board of a private or listed company, the answer is no.

• Ajaz Ahmed is the founder of Freeserve and Legal365 and is the President of the Yorkshire Asian Business Association.