Opinion

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Why are we still fighting for gender equality, asks Denise Nurse, and are quotas really the best way to improve things?

Four years after the launch of the Davies Report which set a target of 25 per cent of women on boards, there are now 280 women who make up part of 1,120 total board members in the UK – which equates to 23.5 per cent. 

This is great, considering the starting point of 12.5 per cent in 2011, however this short-fall is still shocking; even with huge effort it was not possible to appoint 11 more women to hit the quota.

Some commentators say that the lack of senior women is due to the narrow talent pool, but the stats show that this is not the case. For example, in the UK’s legal sector, women represent over 60 per cent of entrants into the profession. 

Is the issue really the lack of women joining the workforce? In today’s society, and for many modern family units, women need to work and actually want to have a career. The financials of our current economy mean that the days when families could be supported by a single parent income are long gone.

There are many women who return to work after their maternity leave, but are looking up and around and seeing that the path to management is either not available or not something they want to strive for. In fact, recent statistics have shown that only 15 per cent of working women aspire to reach senior leadership positions.

Under pressure

The issue seems to lie within many City firms, particularly in the legal space: the way they are structured, the culture of presenteeism, the constant pressure to visibly demonstrate commitment and the way they value and remunerate based on time spent and billed rather than on outputs. Many women feel this structure and value system is not somewhere where would be adequately valued. 

I often say that we need to remember that a huge number of corporate structures and their support systems were created in an era when men wore bowler hats to work and most had stay-at-home wives who looked after the house and children. 

However, we still expect most working families to fit into this structure, not just when it comes to hours and place of work, but also when it comes to how people are valued, remunerated and promoted.

Again, traditional law firms are a prime example of how structures are not adjusting to modern society. 

Law firms still value individuals primarily on their billable hours, but as most working families know, you have a set number of hours per week which can be dedicated to work and therefore it is about multi-tasking, being efficient and effective. If these fundamental issues are not acknowledged and addressed, the struggle to retain senior level women who will ultimately take up positions on boards will perpetuate.

Are quotas the answer?

So are quotas the answer? They are only part of it. Legislation of course is essential; flexible working legislation, equal pay legislation or part-time worker rights are all important steps. 

But a fundamental shift is needed in how issues are addressed in our workforce. Sandi Toksvig (comedienne and founder of the recently-formed Women’s Equality Party) recently stated that “if UKIP and the Green Party have taught us anything, actually pushing the mainstream parties to pay attention is much more successful". 

Founding the Women’s Equality Party is a brave and fundamental move within our political system; we now have a political party that deals with women’s issues and rights.

This now needs to be mirrored by taking brave and fundamental steps when it comes to corporate structures. 

Quotas do not provide the whole solution, but they could be just one step for corporations, particularly those that are not as progressive, to realign their interests to allow and encourage more senior women into leadership positions.

Overall, gender diversity on boards is essential for businesses, our society and the economy but as the brilliant Dave Goldberg put it, is it is just “the right thing to do”.

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don't miss the Real Business First Women programme:

Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit  designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.

Denise Nurse is CEO and co-founder of Halebury.

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