Mary Ann Sieghart: Nobody likes quotas, but they work

If politics has anything to teach business, it is this: good intentions are all very well but progress is achingly slow

Every battle for women's representation goes the same way. Women complain and men take no notice. Next, independent evidence is produced that the organisation would win more votes/make more money if there were more women in it. Most men shrug their shoulders, but a few take note. Finally, some enlightened men start making the argument. Ah, at last! Maybe there's something in it.

It's like the old cartoon in which five men are sitting at a boardroom table, with a woman at the far end. The chairman says: "That's an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men would like to make it?"

But even when the suggestion is made by men, that's not the end of the matter. For the enlightened men then have to persuade the more Neanderthal of their sex that something has to be done. And don't underestimate a Neanderthal's determination to protect his territory and that of his tribe. At this point, the enlightened men call for positive action to help women and the Neanderthals fight back by co-opting a few women to say this would be patronising. Years then pass before anything much changes.

This is the point we have reached for women on boards. It was 20 years ago that the female-led Opportunity 2000 started complaining about the almost total predominance of middle-aged male golfing partners running British companies. Finally, two decades on, the enlightened Lord Davies of Abersoch has produced a report calling on businesses to take action. But he dismisses quotas, because they would be demeaning to women. And he won't achieve much through exhortation: more than half of FTSE 250 companies have not a single female director.

The campaign to get more women into Parliament followed just the same trajectory. When I started covering politics in the mid-1980s, that world was almost entirely male. I can pinpoint the year – 1993 – when I first had to queue for the loo at a Labour Party conference. That was because, for the first time, trade unions whose membership was, say, 60 per cent female had to make sure that 60 per cent of their conference delegates were women too. And constituency parties were asked to send one man and one woman.

But women still accounted for just 14 per cent of Labour's MPs then and that was the year the party finally decided to adopt quotas, saying that half of all winnable seats should select a candidate from an all-woman shortlist. It was only half of all seats, but from the reaction of some Labour men, you would have thought that men's career chances had been destroyed.

The redoubtable Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, had always been against quotas, but she eventually came round when she saw that no amount of persuasion or cajoling seemed to work. In one selection process, she had won more nominations than any other candidate, but didn't even make it to the shortlist. She calculated that she finally got into Parliament 15 years later than she should have done.

Despite setbacks, the all-women shortlists were pretty successful. In 1997, Labour sent 101 women to Westminster out of 419 MPs. The Tories managed just 14. Of course, the critics (usually male) tried to belittle the new intake as lacking in ability, overpromoted and propelled to Parliament undeservedly. Actually, they represented as wide a range – from truly excellent to depressingly pedestrian – as any of the men among whose ranks they sat.

The Tories, as usual, were more than a decade behind Labour. At that point, they were still in denial. I can remember making the case for more female MPs and being derided. At party conferences, I would chair fringe meetings on the subject, which attracted lots of women but no men. Even the women, though, were against any positive action. "We have to get there on merit," they would say. "But you're just as good as men, and you're not getting there!" was my reply.

Why don't women get there? The answers are the same in business as they are in politics. Then and now, men claimed that there weren't enough good female candidates. Because of the rigours of child-rearing, there are certainly fewer, but there are still plenty who aren't being given the chances they deserve. The problem is one not of supply but demand.

In the Conservative Party then, there were hundreds of bright, enthusiastic and articulate women who wanted to enter Parliament. Mysteriously, they kept being overlooked in favour of bright, enthusiastic and articulate men. Today, one of the top headhunters, MWM, has compiled a database of 250 women who are eminently qualified to serve on a FTSE 250 board. Chairmen only need to ask to see it.

Yes, women's style can be different. They are usually less flashy, less brash than men; instead they are briskly competent and unafraid to lose face by asking awkward questions. These are just the qualities that most boards need. But it's as if these women become invisible when appointments are being considered.

When men are making appointments, they often – wittingly or not – look only for other men. When Max Hastings left the editorship of the Daily Telegraph, a commentator wrote a full-page piece in the Evening Standard on the runners and riders to succeed him. Hastings' deputy was Veronica Wadley and she was the favoured choice of many Telegraph journalists. But the commentator didn't even mention her among the six men he surveyed. He might have had his reservations, but why not at least explain why she was unlikely to win the job? Surely a male deputy wouldn't have been so ignored?

Maybe we don't make enough noise. Harriet Harman, for instance, was a quietly effective acting leader of the Labour Party last year, but we only noticed how good she was when she had gone. Theresa May is doing a fine job as Home Secretary, but we haven't remarked on the absence of the crises that normally afflict that department. Neither woman makes a fuss; she just gets on with the job.

The Conservatives at last have men – notably David Cameron – making the case for more female MPs. They haven't yet used all-woman shortlists, though they have tried hard to persuade constituency associations to select more women. The improvement is sluggish. Now 16 per cent of their MPs are female; still only half of Labour's proportion. In government, the representation looks bad too: just four out of 23 Cabinet ministers, while Ed Miliband's Shadow Cabinet is very nearly 50:50.

If politics has anything to teach business, it is this. Good intentions are all very well, but the progress they achieve is achingly slow. No one enjoys quotas: like democracy, they are the least bad option. You can make them temporary, you can use the threat of them as a spur to action (which seems to be Lord Davies' plan). But you can't, in the end, do without them. It's a great pity, but men don't give up power without a fight.



m.sieghart@independent.co.uk

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