Quotas – the debate

JK_hig_res_colour_-_Copy-199x300Over the past few weeks I have sat quietly and sometimes not so quietly and listened to a diverse group of men and women discuss all the arguments for NOT introducing some form of legislation to enforce gender balanced boards. The key arguments against go like this:

  • Quotas: women don’t like them because they upset men
  • Most women want to get on via merit and not simply because they are a woman
  • Most companies would love to promote more women to senior positions but, to be honest, the talent is not out there and most women don’t really want to be on the board anyway
  • Women are opting out of corporate and public life because of the conflict around childcare issues. This is not the responsibility of employers or men. It’s just the way it is.

Well, are these the best arguments we can put on the table? Sometimes I really wish I did NOT have answers to all of this twaddle. It would be easier to believe them and resign myself and the next generation to mediocrity and the life of a worker bee, but alas I have to speak up. I am fed up of listening to both men and women regurgitate the same inaccurate, misconceptions about my gender, so I am more than happy to stick my neck out and tell it as it is. You have been warned!

Quotas upset men

Forgive me but if quotas upset men – boohoo! Their attitudes and behaviours have upset me and my sisters more, for longer with more impact. It is not my job to fix men. They need to find their own way through this so called feminine revolution. It is not my responsibility to make them feel good about my emancipation.

Women want to be promoted exclusively on merit

Oh, if only the world worked this perfectly or life was so fair. Of course we all want to work in a meritocracy where our greatness is recognised and rewarded, but for men to constantly use this as a stick to beat us up with is neither big nor clever. Are we honestly saying that the only way our male colleagues get on and up is on merit? Really? Look around, do you seriously believe all men in senior positions are competent? And in the right role for the right reasons? Do I have to say banking crisis to remind you of how utterly inaccurate this is? We need to get real and join the game here. This is a red herring, one meant to keep us in our place. We do not have to be perfect, we just have to be good enough and we already are!

The talent is simply not out there?

This one really makes me angry. There are thousands of over-qualified, talented women in the market. I know because I meet them every day and for the companies that get this, the benefits of a female approach to leadership, management, customer retention and ROI is well documented. To say we are not interested anyway is wishful thinking and a touch of reverse psychology that unfortunately seems to be working – arrrrgh!!

For the record, this is what we are NOT interested in: working in testosterone fuelled boardrooms where competitive and egocentric behaviour is the norm; working hours that resemble a scene from Wall Street the movie and resigning ourselves to the reality that entry to the top goes hand in hand with sacrificing our femininity, as we are expected to become one of the lads. The organisation needs fixing, NOT the women.

And if there is a shortage of female talent in certain industries and employers genuinely subscribe to the blurb on their websites and in their literature about how much they need and value women, then what are they DOING about it????  Distributing the same brochure in pink is not the answer!

Women are opting out because of childcare and mother conflict

Yes, it is a fact that women are opting out of corporate and public life. In fact since 2002 the professional sector has seen a mass exodus of senior women, around 40% to be precise and board appointments are stagnant, with very little movement in an upwards direction. However, it is too easy to simply blame our biology. Men are parents too. In many cases this exit may be linked to a return from maternity but let’s be clear, women now wait and wait to plan the perfect time to have a child.  The average age for a first time mother in the UK is now 36. But no matter how careful the planning, the return is always fraught with disappointment as their job no longer exists, they are demoted and/or marginalised. Quite often the person covering gets their job, or worst still, 1 in 7 women are made redundant after returning to work. So let’s not pretend this is a choice. If men gave birth would this be standard practice?

And to conclude if we continue to turn off women at this rate how do companies expect to attract younger female talent? If the next generation cannot see any women in senior leadership roles what message does this scream out at them about corporate and/or public life?

I apologise to the enlightened men, the male feminists, the switched on entrepreneurs who get the value and role women play in business. I know many of you and you clearly recognise the impact and difference gender balanced boards make to your bottomline. It is well researched by people far brighter than me! Plus we all know women make over 80% of all consumer decisions and make up over 50% of the population so enough said.

I agree with Sheryl (Sandberg). As women we need to lean in to our careers, take a seat around the table, project ourselves better, give up on the myth of having it all, dump the Miss popularity and little Miss perfect show, find a true partner and speak up, but we also have to get real about the current situation and stop apologising for expecting more.

We have to act like we believe and we deserve equality not cower in the corner waiting for permission to speak or worrying about whether we are alienating men if we do.

Whether we like it or not legislation is coming. It has to. The European Commission is getting antsy about the lack of progress and the UK is way behind so many other European countries on the senior appointment leader board. We cannot continue at this pace if we want to effect long term change and legislation is now needed to correct the failings of the free market.

I would have been more than happy to let this shift evolve without an intervention 20 years ago, even 10 years ago but I am so disappointed with the lack of progress, the loss of so much female talent and the impact this is having on the depressed aspirations of bright young girls. I now recognise the size of the shift we are asking for, the barriers are not made of glass and being ‘nice’ about it is not going to make it happen. It appears to be frame-breaking and it needs a little external push.

So it will come as not surprise to you at this point when I say I am a firm believer in quotas. I am more than happy for them to be a temporary fix to effect long-term change but we need them if we stand a chance of creating gender- balanced boards in my lifetime.

Ladies, we are sat in the boat but afraid of rocking it, when in reality the boat is sinking and if we don’t rock it soon, it will have sunk before our daughters even get the chance to get on board, let alone learn to steer it.

In the words of the great social revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg ‘Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.’

Time to step up and rock the boat ladies and prepare for the board.

Jane Kenyon is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine. http://www.jane-kenyon.com/

1 Comment on Quotas – the debate

  1. Adrienne Kuatse // May 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm // Reply

    ‘Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.’

    Indeed!

    I am among those young woman who are keen to learn the ropes of the boardroom. I have been trying to do it for the past four years on a volunteer basis, to no avail.

    They either say you do not have experience – whilst I wonder how I can get it when I am not allowed to ever start in the first place- and then those who dare to offer you a try would not consider paying for the childcare element of the role.

    I guess I should just keep trying

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