Mary Ann Sieghart: Giving women power requires action

Companies with more diverse boards produce higher returns for shareholders

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Are women great at running the country? You bet.

Four monarchs were voted into the top 25 of the BBC's Greatest Britons of all time. Three of them – Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II – were female. Alfred the Great was the only King, and he didn't even govern the whole of England.

Yet before women found their way on to the throne, there was huge resistance to the idea of a reigning Queen. Back in the 12th century, Henry I decreed that his crown should pass to his only surviving child, the indomitable Matilda. But when he died, her cousin Stephen seized the throne. Undeterred, she fought, and won, a five-year civil war.

But, as she prepared to be crowned in Westminster Abbey, Londoners rose up against her and forced her to flee. Why? As the author of the hostile GestaStephani wrote at the time: "She at once put on an extremely arrogant demeanour instead of the modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex and began to walk and speak and do all things more stiffly and more haughtily than she had been wont."

The historian Helen Castor, who has written about Matilda in She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, points out: "Kings didn't deport themselves with a 'modest gait and bearing'. Instead they were – and were required to be – extremely commanding and authoritative...It is hard to imagine quite what Henry I would have had to do to be accused of acting with 'insufferable arrogance'."

Times haven't changed that much. "A man can be called assertive if he launches World War Three. A woman can be called assertive if she puts you on hold," wrote Gloria Steinem. Be modest about yourself, if you're a woman, and men believe your protestations that you're not much good. Be as confident as your average man, and all at once you're a bighead.

There is something about the female voice – written or spoken – that many men won't take seriously. To them, women simply don't possess authority, however intelligent, wise or erudite they are. The author VS Naipaul claimed recently that no woman wrote as well as he. Talk about insufferable arrogance! I'll bet him a tenner that Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte will still be read in a century's time – and that he won't.

But isn't it interesting that the latter two had to disguise their sex? Even now, some female authors do. JK Rowling was told that, if she used her first name, boys wouldn't buy her books. And they certainly wouldn't have read Harriet Potter. When my young daughter wrote to the author of The Dark is Rising series, Susan Cooper, to ask why her hero couldn't for once be a heroine, the reply came that she would lose half her readers.

This unthinking sexism lasts into adulthood. Women, by and large, are as happy to read books by men as by other women. When I buy a book, I never think about the gender of the author. Men, by contrast, are much less likely to read books written by women. Oddly, there seem to be no industry-wide statistics for this. But when Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College, London surveyed 100 academics, critics and writers, they found four out of five men said the last novel they had read was written by a man, whereas women split nearly half and half. On the Goodreads website, women are more than twice as likely as men to read and review a book written by the opposite sex.

Men are even encouraged to dismiss books written by half of humanity. This year's list of "75 books men should read", compiled by Esquire magazine, had one – yes, just one! – female author. As her first name was Flannery, maybe the judges were confused.

Nor are women considered authoritative enough to pass judgment on men's books. In yesterday's Sunday Times, 13 out of 14 reviews were written by men; the only female reviewer was given a book written not just by a woman, but a famously feminist lesbian. The novelist Amanda Craig is particularly outraged by this. She was one of only two women to review the new, Booker-longlisted Alan Hollinghurst novel in a British paper this year – she was commissioned by The Independent on Sunday after she had pointed out in a Facebook debate how certain male authors were never reviewed by women. Yet women buy twice as many books as men, read more fiction, and are just as likely – if not more – to lap up the latest Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes.

 

So don't even get me started on the paucity of women on boards. Since Lord Davies of Abersoch published his mild-mannered report six months ago, the response has been lamentable. He only proposed that companies aim to have a board that is 25 per cent female; in other words, three times as many men as women. He didn't impose quotas, but asked that FTSE companies at least explain to him how they intended to increase the number of women directors.

The result? Only 61 of the FTSE 100 businesses have even bothered to reply to him, and just 33 have set any targets for action. Fourteen FTSE 100 companies still have no female directors at all. Over the past year, the percentage of women on top boards has inched up from 12.5 to 14.2 per cent, and for FTSE 250 companies, it's under 10 per cent. What do we have to do? Throw ourselves under carriages? Chain ourselves to railings? That's what it took to win women the vote.

What's so bizarre is that there is no business case for this dilatoriness. There are plenty of well-qualified women itching to get on to boards – ask any headhunter. And research shows that companies with more diverse boards produce higher returns for shareholders. The only explanation can be that most men (with the odd honourable exception) consistently underrate the abilities of women.

So what's the lesson? When England's first two female monarchs came to the throne, it was only because there wasn't a single male Tudor heir to be found. The populace was forced to accept female authority faute de mieux. And guess what? It turned out that women could run a country after all; indeed Elizabeth was really rather good at it.

It's taken another half a millennium for us to accept that a woman should inherit the throne before her younger brother. But hey, let's not carp. The moral is that men will allow women power only when they absolutely have to. I hate the principle of quotas for women on boards, but I'm coming to believe that men won't let women into their closed circle unless they are forced to do so. Like the English in the 16th century, though, they will be pleasantly surprised by the result.

m.sieghart@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/MASieghart

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