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Women and the Cabinet reshuffle: Does diversity matter?

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Still a long way from equal participation, but the fact that the PM was under pressure to think about increasing the gender diversity of his Cabinet is good news for society and the economy. 

When you are building a business, diversity comes a very long way down the list of things to worry about. But a strong, competitive economy is built on making the best of all available talent – and the UK still has a long way to go to shake off its patriarchal heritage.

Why does gender diversity matter?

1. The Cabinet, and the boardroom, is where the ultimate decisions are taken and capital is allocated

Did you know that only five per cent of early-stage investment capital goes to female entrepreneurs, even though men and women start businesses at a similar rate? Or that female-only sports attract only five per cent of sports funding in the UK, whilst male-only sports attract 40 per cent, even though women are matching or outdoing men in the medal counts in international competitions? Only with more female voices at the top will these misallocations of capital start to be righted.

2. The “top table” also sets the tone for organisational culture and ethics

Many of our largest organisations were designed by men, for men, in the days when women were excluded from much of the workforce. With a wife at home, these organisational designers of the past had no need for flexible working or child-care facilities. In 2014, with so few women at the top challenging stereotypes and pointing out the things that don’t work well for them, organisations are lacking both the impetus to change and the insights needed to design a culture that works for both men and women. 

There is considerable research that shows that organisations led by diverse boards, including at least three women, outperform their peer group. Diversity reduces the risk of succumbing to group-think, and the related pressure to “not rock the boat”. And the increased challenge that accompanies diverse ways of viewing the world is our best defence against some of the shocking lapses of ethics that have characterised recent scandals across various sectors of business and politics. 

3. There is the need for female role models

Young people frequently decide what they want to do with their lives when they see someone or something that inspires them and captures their imagination. We need more women at the top of politics to inspire and excite girls and young women about what it means to be in a position of ultimate responsibility and play an active part in changing the world. When asked if she minds being a “token woman”, Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, respondedR that she sees herself as a “beacon” not a “token”. We need a lot more entrepreneurial beacons for ambitious young women to follow.

It is now almost 40 years since the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) was passed, and over 80 since women got the right to vote equally with men, yet women are still all too often missing from positions of power in politics and business in the UK. The Sex and Power 2013 Report (from the Counting Women In coalition) states that, at the current rate of progress, a child born today will be drawing her pension before she has any chance of being equally represented in the Parliament of her country. Women on Boards believes that in Parliament and entrepreneurship, equal representation is an essential underpinning of both equality and a strong UK economy.

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