The Government has just rushed through the Equality Bill to get it passed before parliament is dissolved ahead of this year’s general election. The bill will become law before the election but won’t actually come into effect until the autumn. One of the key points of the bill is that it will allow "positive action" from an employer to redress the balance if they have more male than female employees, meaning that they can actively recruit more women into their business if they already have a high number of men. Choosing a female applicant over a male applicant in this case would only be possible if they were both equally qualified for the job.
Such positive discrimination among equally qualified candidates is seen by many to be part of the solution to address the gender imbalance. Positive discrimination is one thing but what about when it’s taken a few steps further, i.e. a female boardroom quota – could that be part of the solution too? Do Britain’s businesswomen need not so much of a hand up but more of a full on shove to get to the top?
Although the introduction of such female quota policies in the UK would currently be illegal due to the fact that employers are unable to discriminate on the grounds of gender, race or religion, does the introduction of the Equality Bill actually pave the way? It’s interesting to note that our European neighbours are already doing it. Female boardroom quotas are law in Norway and Spain. Now Germany is following suit with Deutsche Telekom being the first large German firm to introduce such quotas. They recently announced that 30% of their senior managers will be female by 2015. Whether that means appointing and promoting more women to senior positions or enforced sex changes for their current male senior managers is anyone’s guess.
The whole question of female boardroom quotas makes me very uneasy. How on earth do they work? What self-respecting woman would walk into her very first board meeting with her head held high, knowing that she owes her presence to the fulfilment of a quota and yet never knowing if she would have gotten the job on her own merits and ability to do the job? Under these circumstances, how could any woman fail to live up to the expectation that the weaker sex actually needs such a quota in order to get any kind of promotion in the workplace? Clearly, we’d never get anywhere without our male counterparts taking pity on us and allowing us to join the party!
Has anyone stopped to consider the other meaning of "quota"? A quota, as well as being a prescribed number, is also taken to mean a limitation. In this context, women can be cheerfully shepherded into the boardroom until such time as the limit has been reached and then, bang! The doors slam shut and no more sheep, sorry, I mean women, are allowed in. Not only are we insulted by the assumption that we couldn’t get a board level position without help but woe betide the woman who comes along after the quota has been filled. She may be the only one who actually deserves her place on the board but because she’s late to the party, her name’s not down and she’s definitely not coming in!
Looking at the facts for a second, it’s true that just 12% of the boards of UK FTSE 100 companies are women. The gender imbalance is alive and well. It’s also true that studies have proved that those companies employing a higher percentage of women achieve greater results and profitablity. The missing link here is that companies have to be employing the right women in order to achieve those improved results and profitability. Taking on any woman at all just isn’t going to have the same effect.
This kind of positive discrimination is only positive for those who are championing it! No one else is getting any kind of benefit from it – not the women who end up with board level jobs and certainly not the companies who employ them. Whatever happened to getting a job because you deserved it? Because you’ve worked hard in your chosen profession and you’ve earned that promotion? Such decisions should have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with ability and experience. Then again, perhaps my views are as old-fashioned as employing the right person with the right skill set and the right experience to do the job in the first place.