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David Cameron's 'Women Problem' - Time for Quotas?

11/02/2014 11:28 GMT | Updated 12/04/2014 10:59 BST

It is worth saying again: Prejudice against women fulfilling their professional promise is one of the most pernicious discriminations still tolerated in the UK.

Even politics, supposedly the bedrock of representation in our democracy, is riddled with the same blinkered prejudice as parts of business. The image of David Cameron flanked by an entirely male Front Bench at Question Time eloquently illustrates the situation. What hope for change? Well, some.

But to get there we have to recognise that the problem owes much to the knotted worlds of education, politics and class in our country.

The hope lies in the fact that the now notorious Question Time photograph was so widely reported. The Prime Minister's so-called "women problem" is starting to hurt him politically. Now perhaps something will start to happen.

The suspicion is that Mr Cameron, with his "calm down, dear" put down of MP Angela Eagle, is part of a casual sexism in politics.

In fact, David Cameron may find himself as haunted by photographs of his largely male Cabinet, as he is by the photograph of him dressed with Regency hauteur in the regalia of the grand Bullingdon Club (all male) at Oxford University. He is, after all, the Party leader who promised to do more for women, yet has found room for just four in his Cabinet

The Daily Mail, of all places, has embarrassed the Government by noting that only 27 per cent of available top posts in the civil service, those at Permanent Secretary level, have gone to women in the past three years. The newspaper also pointed out that a similar number of new ambassadors have been female out of 140 new posts.

The Prime Minister may simply be unable to help himself as the product of an education system (all-male Eton) that has, so subtly, perpetuated a "them" (women) and "us" (men) approach to advancement in life.

There are certainly no easy causes to identify for a discrimination so wily and tenacious that few acknowledge their complicity in its continuation. But there are indicators.

The biggest of these is the old boys' club, that building-less place helpfully defined by one website as "an informal system by which power and money are retained by wealthy white men through incestuous business relationships."

But where does it begin in politics? Independent schools must take some responsibility, even if it is unclear what.

It cannot be a coincidence that whilst only seven per cent of the UK is privately educated, some 35 per cent of MPs have been. This tells us not about a direct discrimination, but something more nuanced, that in part is to do with history and confidence. For instance, there is also some evidence that political societies flourish better in private schools.

Women are less confrontational, and perhaps less clubbable, than men. It certainly seems from my own experience, and to pick another indicator, that men seamlessly build club memberships into their working lives. Women, by contrast, seem to be reticent networkers, often because they are already juggling their career with family commitments that never quite end up being shared.

Conscious and unconscious bias in the old boys' club makes it hard for women to break through, as it does in business. There is a general view that once 30 per cent has been reached, parity will gradually follow. We are some way off that figure, with about 22 per cent of parliamentarians female in Europe, 24 per cent in the Americas and just 13 per cent in Asia.

The exclusion of women from positions of power impacts on our society; and it does on the engagement between our political rulers and society. It is simply a huge obstacle to equality in the UK.

If Mr Cameron is serious about giving more opportunities to women he would insist on temporary quotas, just as the corporate world is recognising. If hard-headed Lloyd's Banking Group can set a 40 per cent target for women in its top posts, why not political parties and the civil service?

Quotas would also force politicians to look outside of independent boys' schools and to invest more in looking within their wider communities; particularly to the products of local schools and colleges.

Meanwhile, Green Park, an executive recruitment agency, has added a further twist to the knot, by producing a report that ties together gender and ethnic diversity in British corporate life. In its analysis of 100 top firms, it found just 12 women as chairs, chief executives or finance directors.

When head-hunters start to link gender discrimination with racial discrimination, Mr Cameron, you do have a problem, one it would be politically prudent to address.