“Equality of Opportunity – can it be achieved without quotas?”

Beverley Nielsen- Head Shot-CorporateAffairsDirector

Beverley Nielsen discusses.

Women’s progress to the top of business has been remarkably slow despite a battery of equality and human rights legislation and tremendous medical and social advancements over the past 100 years or so.

And that’s without even mentioning the incredible talent that’s out there.

For example at the Birmingham e-Spark Awards on 23rd July at Fazeley Studios sponsored by RBS, NatWest and KPMG we were able to spot some of the emerging women entrepreneurs demonstrating refreshing attitudes and brimming with creativity.Of the £25k total funds awarded to new businesses, Charnel Conway won £6k for ABA Tutorship, Danielle Saunders £4k for Onaris Africa and Chandeep Uppal £1k for The Space.Landmark dates along women’s journey to emancipation include 1918 when Countess Constance Markievicz became the first woman elected to parliament but having stood for Sinn Fein she did not take her seat. In 1919 Nancy Viscountess Astor became the first female Conservative MP when her husband vacated his seat having been elevated to the Lords. Margaret Wintringham was elected in 1921 as the first Liberal female MP, and in 1924 Ellen Wilkinson, or ‘Red Ellen’, was elected as the first MP for the Labour party.

However, in 2013, almost 100 years later women accounted for just 16.6% of board members of large publicly listed companies across the EU.

Whilst 25% of FTSE 100 companies now have women directors, they are primarily in non-executive positions, with many of these doubling up, serving on several boards and the proportion of female executives remains pitifully low at 9.5% in the FTSE 100, 5% in the FTSE 250.

As Management Today, 13 July 2015, says, “Although that’s also a record, it’s not one to be particularly proud of”.

Of the 500 largest corporations in the US, only 23 have a female chief executive officer, or just 4.6%. In the not-for-profit sector women make up 2/3rds of workforce but in the US only 19% of charities have a woman CEO.

Pay and progression inequality persists with age-based discrimination against women increasing in the US by around 50% according to the 2012 report, Women and the Workforce.

In her book, Feminism and Men, Nikki van der Gaag, states – “The cost of women not being engaged in paid work (let alone as top management) is huge: according to one report the economic cost of failing to educate girls to the same standard as boys in 65 low- and middle-income countries was estimated at $92bn a year. And according to the IMF, whole economies are losing out – if women and men had more equality at work, it would increase GDP in the US by 5%, in Japan by 9% and in Egypt by 34%.”

And research by management consulting firm McKinsey and others consistently suggests that organisations with diverse boards are on the whole more profitable and doing better than those run only by men.

So how to address this persistent gap?

At our Midlands Insider roundtable discussion in July the women present from banking, law, education, surveying, charitable and business interests cited a number of factors. Lack of top management belief in flexible working as a practical, workable solution for energetic and ambitious women rising through the ranks of middle management was seen as a real barrier to progress. Woman quoted how they had been expected to work all hours and be available ‘whenever the client called’ if they wanted to get to the top.

Lack of role models, understanding of relevant careers advice and opportunities, too few local networks, a lack of mentors were all mentioned. A 2005 report by Penelope Lockwood, University of Toronto, suggested that women gain comparatively more in workplace settings when they can follow the model of a successful woman who has overcome barriers.

However, the biggest factor cited during our discussion was the prevalence of ‘unconscious bias’ – a hidden factor persisting throughout society, a kind of cultural iceberg rather than glass ceiling, blocking progress for women in businesses and organisations of all kinds.

Monique Royle, Associate Director, Colliers, introduced us to a gender-career Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT), developed by three scientists from Harvard, University of Washington and University of Virginia aimed at describing characteristics around values, attitudes and beliefs enabling people to develop greater self-understanding and education around hidden biases.

Half of us present managed to complete the test with this throwing up the worrying result that 80% of these women holding senior or top management positions in Birmingham or the wider Midlands had a ‘moderate association of male with career and female with family, compared with female with career and male with family.’

Is this because so many women have had in the past to start behaving like men in order to be taken seriously? And in doing so have they adopted their cultural values and beliefs in a far more insidious way than they have been conscious of.

In discussing quotas and targets there was an in-built attitude against quotas. No one wants to be the token woman on a board and concerns were voiced about women needing to be properly prepared for senior roles.

During our roundtable discussion our group reached a compromise agreeing that a ‘corporate code’ with explicitly stated ‘targets’ for women in management positions through all levels of organisations would help to move things forward.
In signing up to this I couldn’t help wondering if it would be enough to turn around a situation which has persisted for decades as well as wondering for the umpteenth time what is wrong with quotas?

Vicky Pryce, economist and commentator, has stated in her recent book, Why Women Need Quotas- “The truth is that many countries are implementing quotas. The German government will now oblige listed companies to fill 30% of all top posts with women. A glance at countries like Norway that have legislated in favour of quotas makes it abundantly obvious that companies and the economy haven’t collapsed under the strain.”

In listening to young women working in Norway they are keen to explain how, when looking up the corporate ladder they take heart, knowing they will have a real chance of getting onto the board. This thought is not only motivating but keeps them on board, even when other priorities start to make demands on their time and energy.

We have the legislation but we don’t have the action. Perhaps establishing clear targets, or more forcefully, setting quotas is the only way we will achieve sound business sense.

July Midlands Insider Roundtable discussion on Women in Business