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Shuffling Women Out of the Cabinet

Posted: 07/09/2012 01:00

Prior to his election, David Cameron pledged to give a third of his first government's jobs to women. Following the election, his Cabinet of 23 had five women, a total of 22%. Now, following his reshuffle, there are four women in a larger cabinet of 29, producing a total of just under 14%. This is a pale shadow of what was promised.

You have to pinch yourself to realise that this is 2012. France, Sweden and Switzerland all have equal proportions of men and women in their Cabinets and there are 56 countries in the world that give women fairer representation than the UK. Yet, the senior people in the British Cabinet behave as though this is completely normal. Sending out goodness-knows what kind of message to the country.

How could behaviour which marginalises half of the population, a form of sexual apartheid, have prevailed? And what damage is this likely to do the Cabinet's, and therefore the country's, ability to lift us out of a triple-dip recession?

Early influences on Cameron

As the famous scholar and communications guru, Marshall Mcluhan, said: "It is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behaviour" and it is generally recognized that childhood experiences influence attitudes to food, money and relationships.

Cameron's childhood experiences? His father Ian was a director at estate agent John D. Wood and stockbrokers Panmure Gordon, in which firm partnerships had long been held by Cameron's ancestors, including his grandfather and great-grandfather. Cameron's mother was, in Cameron's words 'a mum at home' with volunteer work as a Justice of the Peace. His schooling was at Eton whose six hundred years of history have been well preserved with 30% of Eton's headmasters over the last hundred years having attended the school as pupils, and likely to perpetuate the system, not having known any other.

Significantly in this all-boys school, women are low in status or airbrushed out. The evidence? Teachers at the schools are designated 'Masters', regardless of gender, and the atavistic nature of this can be gauged by considering a world in which Duchesses are Dukes, Queens are Kings, and actresses, headmistresses and stewardesses are swept away. What is more, those who clean the boys' rooms and oversee boys' tea are known as 'Boys' maids' (does the Equality Act not apply in Eton?) whilst the 'Dames' who assist the house master in running his house, carry particular responsibility for the health of the boys and the administration of domestic affairs.

With exposure to these kind of stereotyped roles during adolescence and early adulthood, who can wonder that women are absent from the top table?

Negative consequences

Quite apart from the negative effect on women's careers, enlightened men and women are aware of the dire consequences of running a boys' club. Lord Davies, for example, ex CEO of Standard Chartered and lead on the UK Government's review in 2012 of women on company boards, said that: "Having women on boards, who in many cases would represent the users and customers of the companies' products, could improve understanding of customer needs, leading to more informed decision making." In his view, he said: "You can't carry on with a board that does not represent your customer base. "If we don't have equality in business between men and women, we're just not going to be competitive internationally." As a consequence of this view, he set a target of 25% female membership of FTSE 100 boards by 2015.

He is not alone in seeing the business imperative for more women at the top, with Lady Prosser, deputy-chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), saying that: "Bringing in talented women who bring real benefits to individual company performance and ultimately help Britain's economic recovery." In fact, these anecdotal references are supported up by solid research studies. In 2007, for example, a report by McKinsey ('Women Matter') concluded that a critical mass' of 30% or more women at board level or in senior management produces the best financial results.

According to a report by Catalyst in the same year, American companies with more women in senior management earned a higher return on equity than those with fewer women at the top. The report found that companies with more women on their boards outperformed their rivals with a 42% higher return on sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity. Recently, a new study by the research institute of Credit Suisse (July 2012) showed that blue-chip companies with at least one woman on the board have outperformed rivals with no women at the top table by 26% over the last six years. Companies with female directors outperform on share price, show a higher return on equity and tend to have less debt and higher valuations.

The difference made by women was particularly noticeable during the financial crisis leading Stefano Natella, co-head of securities research and analytics, to describe the findings as 'irrefutable'. When you consider that In July this year, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government's independent fiscal watchdog, forecast 0.8pc growth as an optimistic estimate, an increase of 26% is extraordinary.

Women turn round Iceland

The difference that diversity can make is manifest in the turnaround in Iceland. This ancient democracy (the oldest still active in the world) saw its banks collapse in 2008, sparking off unemployment at 10%, a fall in house prices and the value of the currency and a surge in inflation. What action was taken? Women were appointed to lead two of the disgraced banks and their CEO and Chairman imprisoned. In the political arena, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir became prime minister with a Cabinet of six men and four women and their mix of measured austerity and unorthodox policies (for example private debt forgiveness and defending welfare payments as much as possible) have paved the way for an economic resurgence. Interestingly, a Harvard study (Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior, 2008) showed that men with higher levels of testosterone, when asked to place financial bets, took more risk than those with lower levels. Other studies have shown male investors to lose money more often than female investors with the men still believing they're better investors than women.

Time for change

So, women's risibly small presence at the top table in the UK is not a law of nature. It is a product of many things including a centuries old school that has a long record of either ignoring or downgrading the feminine and people need to shout loudly so that attitudes can be updated. Appointing more junior women to ministerial positions will not be a substitute for a greater female presence in the Cabinet. This is 2012, not 1902, and the consequences of failing to have a more balanced Cabinet are imperative from a moral, ethical, legal and economic point of view. Women around the UK need to make their views known.

 
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