100 Years On, and Women’s Rights Still Dominating the Headlines

March 8, 2018

One hundred years may have passed since women were given the right to vote in the UK (98 years in the US), but the issue of women’s rights is still as prevalent as ever. In recent months the issue has dominated the news, with the launch of the recent #metoo campaign following the outpouring of allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other prominent men in power, and the latest pay revelations claiming that gender parity is still 168 years away.[1]

Notable advances have obviously been made over the last half-century, particularly in the areas of educational attainment, professional development and politics, however this has not manifested itself in significant increases in female business leadership. While it is widely accepted that a diverse workforce is a more productive and successful workforce, and that failing to take advantage of the skills of highly-qualified women constitutes a waste of talent and a loss of economic growth potential, female representation amongst senior management teams is still low.

Gender Equality

As the gender equality debate rumbles on and diversity and inclusion continue to rank as a priority for top-tier employers, the question remains as to how best to achieve this: Do quotas and targets actually work? Are employers offering sufficient flexible benefits to attract more women into senior positions? Is the issue of pay deterring women from rising through the working ranks?

On International Women’s Day, a celebration which originated more than 100 years ago with the aim of achieving full gender equality for women around the world, we look at how businesses can attempt to address the issues surrounding the lack of females in senior positions in the workplace.

Quotas and targets

One option is to use quotas and targets. While such methods have been proven to improve equality and increase diversity amongst under-represented groups, they have also been known to generate negative sentiment.

Quotas and targets –  quotas are enforced by an external body and are mandatory with penalties for failing to meet them, while targets are specific and measurable objectives set by the organisation themselves – can help create a ‘critical mass’ of women in senior roles, thus generating increased awareness of the diversity issue. The hope is that in the long run this may start impacting recruitment in the workplace, and eventually make quotas redundant. Quotas can also lead to better employment policies, such as enhanced maternity rights or more opportunities for flexible working, which in turn may produce more applications for particular roles from women.

On the other hand, filling quotas can also distract from the actual skills required to carry out a particular job and force a focus on recruiting a person from a specific background or of a particular gender just to achieve a quota. The arguments against quotas therefore primarily include the lack of ability to take into account diversity in different sectors, locations or skill sets within under-represented groups. Also, because quotas are mandatory and enforceable, they may add to the business and regulatory costs of an organisation, ie. shareholders may see quotas as intrusive as they mandate their choice of candidates, or the organisation may not be able to sufficiently train candidates in time to meet the quota. By contrast, targets are often seen as pointless as there is no urgency to meet them as they are set internally and can easily be changed.

There is also a concern that those who get the roles through the quota or target mechanism may be marginalised and viewed as token employees.

Another option is to raise the general acceptance of flexible working and make it easier for women to fill both roles of a senior businesswoman and a mother. The emergence of female role models is a useful factor in increasing awareness and providing positive examples and appropriate support for women in the workplace.

Flexible working

As the benefits of a diverse workplace are being increasingly acknowledged, now is the time to embrace diversity and equality as an essential part of life. If it is not currently being achieved on its own, then it appears that quotas and targets may be necessary.

In 2010, the 30% club was launched in the UK as a global campaign aimed at creating a better balance of men and women at all levels of an organisation, with a particular focus on boards and governing bodies. Its aim, at launch, was to achieve a minimum of 30 per cent – considered to be the tipping point at which the representation of any minority group achieves critical mass – of women on FTSE-100 boards and has since expanded to include other organisations such as universities and governing bodies. Helena Morrissey, the club’s founder and former CEO of Newton Investment Management, hopes that as more women join boards and demonstrate the value they add, the system will become self-perpetuating.

Drive to improve female representation

In the last few years we have seen a number of successes in the drive to improve female representation at the top of the UK’s biggest companies. According to the most recent Cranfield University report published last year, the number of FTSE 100 companies with at least 33 per cent women on their boards has increased to 28 per cent in the year to June 2017, from 19 per cent a year earlier. Writing in the report, Justine Greening, the UK’s MP Secretary of State for Education Minister for Women and Equalities, welcomed the progress, saying that we must continue to prioritise the agenda, saying it is not only important for women, men and their families, but also to businesses and the economy as a while.

“The benefits of helping women to unlock their talents are huge,” Greening said in the report. “Eliminating work-related gender gaps could add £150 billion to our (the UK’s) annual GDP by 2025. That is an opportunity that neither Government nor businesses can afford to ignore.”

Whether the small improvement in equal representation is thanks to government campaigns, increased publicity or the pressure on organisations to meet targets and fulfil quotas, it is a momentum that needs maintaining. The key is to ensure the desire for diversity and gender equality continues and starts to filter through to other under-represented groups through the use of quotas, the wider acceptance of flexible working and the introduction of the necessary support networks. The ultimate aim, of course, is to create the most diverse, but suitable workforce available for the task in hand.

Brickendon is a member of the Women in Finance Charter in the UK, cementing our belief in, and commitment to, a fair and balanced industry. By signing the charter we are publicly stating our commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment for all our employees.

[1] World Economic Forum https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/gender-equality-is-170-years-away-we-cannot-wait-that-long/

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