Feminism

Gender parity: stop talking, start doing…

A couple of weeks ago I joined a pretty amazing group of women from my corporate employer in what was the inaugural meeting of the UK operation’s women’s network, Women in Leadership. We’re a pretty large organisation in the UK (thousands of employees), and our board of directors has made very public its support for a diversity agenda, helped along, no doubt, by the fact that our Regional CEO is herself a woman. We had a couple of main board directors along to support the event, some all day, some for networking breaks, and several really interesting and insightful external speakers. Plus we all got supported to actively choose to take an entire day off the general treadmill to talk about our own and the company’s ambitions to support the progress of diversity within our business – there’s nothing like being issued an invitation by the board to set line managers’ concerns at rest!

All in all, a powerful networking experience – with some really good content. But what surprised me most about the session was the general level of scepticism expressed regarding the effectiveness of using quotas to accelerate the natural promotion rate of individuals from any under-represented group to senior positions. From presenters, from my colleagues, from women whose opinions I respect and champion because they are my friends, I heard the same thing: they believe using quotas to force organisations to accelerate the natural rate of diversity in senior appointments risks “hiring to quota”, replacing perfectly competent men with less experienced or more poorly qualified women, and isn’t necessary because we can effect the change we want without them.

To which I say, calmly and clearly, I could not disagree more.

The Harvard Business Review (@HBR) released this month its survey “Dysfunction in the Boardroom”. Based on work in 2012, in more than 59 countries in the world, the report covered questions regarding the (still parlous) state of female board-level involvement. It revealed that where they exist female board members tend to be younger than male ones (because they were appointed more recently), had greater operational experience and were more likely to be in a lead role (CEO, Partner) than men, and were more likely to describe themselves as ambitious than their male counterparts.

More disturbingly, when the academics asked about the challenges women face compared to men in getting to board level, male executives seemed to be operating in a totally different world to their female colleagues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 87% of female directors said they faced gender-related hurdles in getting to their position: worryingly, a majority of male directors (56%) said that female directors do not.

So how far has 30 years of active work-place feminism got us then? To qualify as one of the 7% (yes that’s right, it’s that low) of executive female board directors in the FTSE 250, I will need to be:

1) more experienced than my male colleagues

2) achieving that level of experience at a younger age than my male colleagues, and

3) self-confessedly more ambitious than my male colleagues

And all this, in order to achieve a rate of natural progression which will only see the UK Parliament reach gender parity after 300 years, based on its current rate of churn.

If it was about a level playing field – if I truly believed that my chances of being considered equally for a shot at a top job were even 50:50 – then I might have more solidarity for the “no quotas” approach. I don’t want to be added to a shortlist simply because of my gender. I certainly don’t want to gain a position only because I help to hit a target – I want to do it because I am the best candidate and because I can offer the greatest potential. But in a world where the male hiring majority consider that  a “lack of experience and industry knowledge” is what holds women back, when the evidence is that the women who are their peers are actually more experienced than they are, then, Alice, we are a long way through the Looking Glass.

Ultimately, the best evidence for quotas is this: They Work. Countries with them (Belgium, France, Iceland, Norway, Spain and the Netherlands – also Italy but I’m not sure they help my argument!) have more women on boards than those without. More tellingly, in countries with quotas twice as many board executives, of either gender, say they are an effective tool for increasing diversity, compared to those that don’t. It doesn’t surprise me that in countries with quotas, 95% of female directors (who may, after all, have benefitted from them) think they are effective – compared to the 48% of women in non-quota operating countries. But it’s powerful testament that in quota-bearing countries, 43% of male directors consider them an effective diversity tool – compared to the 23% of men elsewhere.

Quotas are a means to an end. They aren’t the answer – women shouldn’t be appointed only because they are women – they should be appointed because they are the best candidate. But the world we live in doesn’t operate a level-playing field, it isn’t gender blind, and it still both culturally and institutionally under-values the potential, experience and capabilities of professional women.

Which is, frankly, unacceptable.

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