The boss of Booking.com has warned against political intervention to boost the number of women executives, saying companies must tackle the escalating problem of gender inequality.
Gillian Tans, chief executive of the travel website, said Government-enforced gender quotas could lead to fewer women reaching senior roles, as she urged the tech sector to help more women secure top-level positions.
Her comments come after the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report showed the disparity between men and women had worsened, with the average gap increasing to 32% compared to 31.7% last year.
Speaking to the Press Association, Ms Tans said: “I think if you have political action where they ask for a certain percentage of women then the number really goes down.
“In my experience it is very complicated because you always need to make sure you have the best people for the job.
“I think companies need to take more ownership over the gender gap themselves because if everybody does that then overall it will improve. That takes a lot of work and we have seen that at Booking as well.
“It’s not as if you can do one thing and it will make a big improvement. It’s a number of things internally and externally that you need to focus on.”
The UK Government has taken steps to plug the gender gap in Britain’s finance industry by creating a Women in Finance charter, which controversially linked gender diversity targets in senior management to executive bonuses.
While the charter has faced opposition from some areas of the industry, more than 140 financial firms have signed up to the process.
Ms Tans said such schemes had the potential to create the “wrong behaviour” by “optimising for a number, versus optimising for having the right candidate and the right mix”.
However, she said it is crucial that companies took action to address the differences between men and women in the workplace – especially in the tech industry.
She said tech start-ups must push for diverse candidate lists when hiring and make diversity a key part of staff promotions to ensure equality becomes part of the firm’s DNA.
Around 20% of Booking.com’s tech workers are women, while three of its 12 board members are female.
Ms Tans added: “As CEOs or board members, women are still underrepresented and that gap is actually growing.
“We know that companies which have more women in leadership positions have a better performance.
“It is also important because women need role models – they need to know that this career is possible.”
Ms Tans, who will feature on gender diversity panel sessions at Davos, has also called on Silicon Valley to clean up its reputation amid fears that a recent string of sexual harassment scandals could scare women away from a tech career.
She added: “It’s difficult to judge Silicon Valley because I am not part of those companies, but I do think that it needs to improve overall because women tend to stay away even more from these types of businesses, which eventually could also have an impact on Booking.com.”
Dutch-based Booking.com is owned by The Priceline Group and employs 15,000 staff across 70 countries.