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 (bit.ly/zyK69x). 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.