5 reasons it’s time for all-women quotas

Under-representation is a vicious circle


Quotas are about helping the right people in, not the wrong people.

Opponents of quotas often envision legislation that forces employers to choose average women over great men. Of course this isn’t what anybody thinks is right, and it’s not the point of quotas.

At the Fawcett Society’s #womenatthetop debate last night, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the treasury Seema Malhotra spoke about the All Women Shortlists (AWSs) that the Labour Party uses in its quest for equal representation. ‘You wouldn’t be able to tell’, she said emphatically, who has been brought in through quotas.

And remember that, currently, the low proportion of women in top jobs shows us that great women are regularly and systematically being passed over for average men. The culture needs to change.

Other methods aren’t working

The 2014 Davies Review states proudly that ‘women’s representation on FTSE 100 boards now stands at 20.7 per cent, up from 12.5 per cent in 2011, with only two all male boards remaining. The FTSE 250 have achieved 15.6 per cent, up from 7.8 per cent in 2011 – with 83 of the FTSE 250 all male boards in 2011 now having recruited one or more women onto their boards.’

Great – but we have to remember we’re not being given a present. It’s absurd that all-male boards exist at all. This is about basic equality, which women shouldn’t still be begging for.

Recent polling by Survation on attitudes to gender found that of people who make decisions about recruitment and interviewing – ie. middle managers who ‘hold the keys to career progression’ – 15 per cent say they do not want equality of opportunity. This is double the national average. Similarly, of this group only half think more needs to be done for men and women to be equal, compared to the UK average of 62 per cent.

These are the people who have the power to change things, and they’re not changing them fast enough. This is why it’s time for legislative measures.

The results of quotas will make the business case for equality

Ann Francke, the CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, argues that in a way, quotas would let businesses of the hook. They would allow them to skip the step of fully analysing, fully understanding, why equality makes business sense. To truly change the culture, she says, people need to figure this out for themselves. This is a good point, but ultimately the benefits of having more women at the top will speak for themselves.

As Lucy Shaddock of the Equality Trust has explained,  the World Economic Forum has identified the UK’s gender pay gap and relatively poor rates of female participation in the labour market as major barriers to inclusive growth. The IMF has also produced evidence that gender inequality and income inequality are strongly interlinked.

“Greater inequality between men and women is strongly associated with higher income shares going to the already-rich top 10 per cent, and it also goes hand in hand with lower income shares going to the poorest 20 per cent.”

As for business: in 2004 the US-based non-profit research organisation Catalyst found higher financial performance for companies with higher representation of women board directors. For example, average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53 percent on equity return.

Yes, it might take time for these results to be felt – but surely it will take less time than waiting for employers to understand the business and economic case for more women when it exists only as an abstract concept? We may as well get the ball rolling.

Quotas will start the conversation

It’s true that quotas won’t work on their own. They cannot function as a sticking plaster, and must be accompanied by culture change in which all of society has a role to play, including the media and the education system.

But their introduction would be controversial and would ignite the explosive conversation we so desperately need to have, about why exactly women aren’t getting top jobs, why women are locked out of certain sectors, why there is a pay gap… the list goes on.

We need role models

Under-representation is a vicious circle (this is of course true of racial discrimination too.) The less visible women there are in traditionally male sectors, the less young women will aspire to be in those sectors. Even if women do manage to break into these tight male worlds, the stress of being the only female there can push them back out again.

Women leave the judiciary, for example, at what barrister Charlotte Proudman calls a ‘staggeringly high rate’ – while 50 per cent of people called to the bar are women, only 12 per cent are QCs and 24 per cent judges.

The testosterone-driven culture of sectors like finance and STEM can make careers in them unappealing to even the most talented and determined of women. Quotas represent a way of breaking this cycle, and are a positive way of showing that you do not need to ‘act like a man’ to get into these fields.

They will also dismantle, through forcing men to experience what women are actually like at work, all those harmful stereotypes about powerful women (type ‘woman boardroom’ into Google Images and it’s hard to find a woman who is not either squaring up for a fight or literally bending over).

It’s almost tempting to say that it doesn’t even matter if that first woman isn’t the best person for the job, because of the positive effect her visibility alone will have on future generations, although this is highly unlikely to be an issue – given that half the people are women statistically there’s no more chance of the wrong woman being employed than the wrong man.

The numbers speak for themselves – the UK has been operating an unofficial pro-male quota system forever. This isn’t about revenge, but about levelling the playing field once and for all. It’s about equality, pure and simple.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward

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