My Blog List

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Female Quotas: 'Frightening the horses' or Forging Fairness?

A friend asked me last week what I thought about quotas for women in boardrooms. Instinctively, I replied that I thought it a bad idea. For a start just the word 'quota' conjures up associations of livestock in terms of business: fishing and milk quotas - which puts me off the notion purely on a semantic basis. Like the idea that there should be quotas at Oxbridge, for undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds or state schools (two separate ideas but often myopically entangled in broadsheet debate), it seems wrong to make people feel they've got somewhere by ticking a box, rather than on merit.

It has been a good week to be mulling this idea over though. With the end of last year seeing the publication of Lord Davies's report and Thursday being International Women's Day, the discussion seems to have intensified in the media. The last few days have seen a call from the chair of Plaid Cymru for all women shortlists for parliamentary elections, an interesting article by Polly Toynbee in last Thursday's Guardian and an anti-quota article by Eleanor Mills in The Sunday Times. Yesterday, Jane Garvey debated female representation in the boardroom with Theresa May and Robert Peston on Radio 4.

Toynbee rather gloomily proclaims that 'it's a bad time to be a British woman', citing lack of women in the boardroom as one of several examples of how current government policy is not endearing us to the incumbent PM. She has a point and demonstrates how he is hardly leading by example by only appointing 21 women out of 119 ministers ( But is his shunning of EU plans for quotas wrong? His Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May and Eleanor Mills say not.

May, who decried the introduction of quotas as 'frightening the horses', points to increased representation of women in boardrooms in recent years and there has been progress: 47 women were recruited to FTSE 100 boards in 2011, compared to a mere 18 in the previous year. Her feeling is that this increase will be a continuing trend and the aspirational target of 25% representation put forward by Lord Davies's report, will be exceeded by 2015. The current percentage is 15.6. Eleanor Mills is very much of the meritocratic mindset, describing the 'plan to stuff boardrooms with token skirts' as 'positive discrimination at its worst'. She qualifies this with the idea that 'there is no point sitting pretty at the top if further down women are leaving in droves. What is required is to keep up the public pressure on companies to improve their female leadership and diversity initiatives'. Changing business culture (and indeed culture in general) is clearly the key to rectifying the under-representation of women in the corporate world. In another Guardian article by Kira Cochrane back in December, Natasha Walter (feminist writer and activist) points out, this time in relation to male domination of current affairs programmes, that often the lack of women is down to 'slight laziness' rather than 'conscious sexism or discrimination'. She explains how 'the masculine establishment reproduces itself. They know the men, the men are already visible, so they're easy to ask'. This is perhaps the case in business and could help support the idea that short term quotas, at least, would help promote the visibility of women, making it easier and more comfortable for women to rise to top positions without the hindrance of feeling exposed as different to the norm. Animal associations are used once again to illustrate this by Caitlin Moran (The Times Magazine, December 2011), who assesses the situation thus:

'When women are in a minority in any situation, they feel as understandably odd as two pelicans in a camel enclosure. And the camels can't help but look at the pelican beaks oddly and go off and do 'camel things' in the corner, while the pelicans feel awkward and alone and go on a weird diet of self-loathing.'

Her solution is pro - quota, suggesting that 'you just need to wang half a dozen stupider pelicans into the enclosure, to keep the best pelicans company, and even out the numbers, so that both 'being a pelican' and 'being a camel' is totally normal in the London Zoo Pelican & Camel Experience'. This solution strikes a chord in a world where women still find themselves under-represented in a variety of scenarios, from the corporate world to current affairs panel shows and in the media generally - over a month it was found by one reporter that 78% of newspaper articles where written by men. This seems surprising in a world where women appear on the surface, to have the freedom to inhabit more prominent positions in public life.

It is crucial, whatever measures are taken to enable greater equality of the sexes, that we don't undermine the progress that has been made so far, even if sometimes this may appear to be incremental and slow. I'm all for 'frightening the horses' if necessary but I do worry that we'll all be perceived as second rate pelicans if we sacrifice quality for quantity.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Using the Illusion - Confidently Really Matters

Confidently Really Matters - Sally Taylor

Rather bizarrely, my first memory of the notion of confidence takes me back to being eight years old and watching Paul Daniel's magic show on TV. On the particular show in mind, a young girl volunteer was helping him conjure up some elusive object, I forget exactly what, but had failed the first time round. To enable success on a subsequent attempt, the magician made a C shape with his thumb and index finger and asked her to swallow the imaginary confidence it contained. She did, and Abracadabra! the trick worked. Paul Daniels is not someone you would normally associate with useful childhood epiphanies but on this occasion he was making a hugely important point. Confidence is just an illusion, a trick I feel that has often evaded me and generally seems to evade more women than men, a notion backed up by a couple of things I've heard and read over the last week.

On last Tuesday's Woman's hour on Radio 4, the need for more confidence and risk taking in order for women to be successful was a feature. The headteacher of Wimbledon High School was explaining her school's initiative for encouraging girls to understand that having confidence to fail and succeed, is a common factor in achieving success. Women and girls are often held back by the fear of failure rather than grasping it as a useful springboard to future achievement. She put forward the obvious (but not necessarily widely taught) notion that girls need to be encouraged "to stand up and say I am a successful person and I am proud of that and I don't need to be shy or to step back or to feel that I am being conceited or arrogant ... and when I succeed I will be very happy and I won't be afraid to say so." Women are all too often reticent in confidently asserting their ideas or celebrating their successes. Moreover, they are often deterred by fear of attracting criticism for their boldness (an example being the online abuse cited in my last post).

Corroborating this lack of confidence in an interview in Saturday's Times, Lynne Featherstone, Lib Dem Equalities Minister, shared an anecdote drawn from her experience of visiting primary schools: "When I go into primary schools and say 'Who wants to be Prime Minister?' all the boys go 'me, me, me' and all the girls sit on their hands knowing they could do a better job." Prior to this she had provided a hilarious but pertinent example of male and female behaviour in meetings: "John will say 'fwa fwa fwa'. Fred will say 'I agree with John, fwa fwa fwa' and Terry will say 'I agree with John and Fred, fwa fwa fwa'. And Jane will open her mouth when she has a point to make. Men always reinforce what someone else has said and women tend to be very thoughtful and make a point." It is this thoughtfulness that needs to be taken more notice of and encouraged into the limelight more often. And, with reference to the primary school scenario, girls and young women must be encouraged to raise their hands and speak rather than sitting on them and imprisioning their ideas in interior dialogue.

The image posted above sums it up for me really, it's a painting by Sally Taylor, a friend of mine, whose paintings and drawings 'affirm a desire to understand more about human relationships and the interaction with others.' It is this human, and more specifically female, relationship with confident interaction with others, which we should all seek to affirm more often.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Metaphors of Merit

Time to blog has been evasive of late but I'm persevering. It's been an inverse hibernation - rather than storing up sustenance in preparation for a long sleep, it has been sleeping and dreaming up ideas to nourish a reawakening instead. I have been far too reticent with the idea of blogging but I am being spurred on by wise words from Jessica Brinton in The Times back in January: 'Persistence is power: it's better to create something that isn't perfect - refine, develop, try again - than not to create at all.' Quite fitting being as this is my third attempt at a blog and the only one that has got as far as a second post.

The title of this post has been inspired by some thought provoking metaphors that I've stumbled on recently that help draw attention to experiences of modern women. Having managed to keep up with current affairs more over the last year, I have been quite surprised by some of the obstacles that still face women that had not even crossed my mind. My awakening began with reading Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman, where she draws attention to the fact that women are still markedly underrepresented or discriminated against, in many areas of life. One of the most shocking examples I came across in the press, was the issue of sexist abuse online. One of my favourite metaphors was created in response to this by Zoe Williams in The Guardian, who explains how women online are a kind of pinata being beaten by the sticks of aborrhent web trolls. However, as she puts brilliantly, 'immediately you engage, the worst of it simply slips away. As much as I hate to generalise about them, I think trolls dislike dealing with a human being; they like a pinata, some big ugly spectre they can beat with a stick. If a pinata starts talking back, it might not increase your affection for it, but it makes you feel squeamish about hitting it in the face.' A great observation for making us recognise that we should just have the confidence to fight back rather than ignore abuse.

Another thought provoking metaphor is proffered by Gaby Hinsliff in her new book Half a Wife which I have only just started to read but has thrown up so many relatable observations on the frustrations faced by modern working families, that I am almost tempted to put Thomas the Tank Engine on repeat so that I can read on more quickly (thus completely defeating the object of the book which is to secure a more harmonious family life). On the first page, she cites the architectural concept of ' a line of desire' ... 'the route people take through public space that was never imagined on the architect's drawing'. She goes on to explain how 'There is just such a line of desire in British working life now, increasingly well trodden by parents turning their backs on the narrow old corporate career path.' She explores ways in which conventional career paths for both sexes can be redrawn to be more conducive to modern family life and the fulfilment of both sexes. I'll keep you posted on how it develops.

Meanwhile, I offer you a metaphor of my own that explains my inabilty to write more often. Amongst the clouds that make up the hectic struggle to carve out my own successful work life balance, my ideas for the blog are like planes circling above the laptop screen, waiting for clearance to land once the children are tucked up in bed, the housekeeping tamed and the work brought home to finish is done.

Reading List
How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
Half a Wife, Gaby Hinsliff