THE BLOG

Are Gender Quotas the Answer?

19/06/2015 12:28 BST | Updated 18/06/2016 10:59 BST

Greater diversity on boards is essential for businesses, our society and the economy but as the brilliant Dave Goldberg put it, it is just "the right thing to do".

Comedienne and founder of the recently-formed Women's Equality Party, Sandi Toksvig said in a recent interview: "How is it that we still have a pay gap? What is it, 45 years since the Equal Pay Act?....On average for part-time work, women are paid 35% less than men. How is that possible?" I have similar questions regarding women in senior positions and women on boards; why is it so hard to achieve equality within the senior marketplace so many decades after the Equality Act?

Four years after the launch of the Davis Report which set a target of 25% of women on boards, we now have 280 women out of 1,120 total board members, which equates to 23.5%. This is great considering we started from a base of 12.5% in 2011, but really this short-fall is shocking; we just needed 11 more women to hit the quota, but even with huge effort it was not possible.

Some commentators say that the lack of senior women is due to the narrow talent pool, but the stats show that this is not the case. In the legal sector women represent over 60% of entrants into the profession. The issue is not the lack of women joining the workforce, and it is not that women do not 'need' to work; for many modern family units, women do need to work and actually want to have a career. The financials of our current economy mean that many women need to generate income. Long gone are the days when families can be supported by a single parent income. Life has become incredibly expensive and mortgages are exceptionally hard to maintain or even obtain by one income families.

I interview a number of senior women lawyers every month: women who have returned to work after their maternity leave, stayed and played the game, but are looking up and around and seeing that the path to management is either not available or not something they want to strive for. In fact, recent statistics have shown that only 15% of working women aspire to reach senior leadership positions.

From a personal view point, I did not want to be a partner of a city law firm - I just decided that model was not for me. I didn't fit in and it was not how I wanted to work and not where I thought I would be valued. Don't get me wrong, I loved where I worked, the people and the work - but I could see that the fit was not right for me. And it wasn't just that particular law firm. The issue was with most City law firms: the way they were structured, the culture of presenteeism, the lack of innovation and constant pressure to visibly demonstrate commitment - it was all too much.

We need to acknowledge that a huge number of corporate structures and their support systems were created and set up in an era when men wore bowler hats to work and most had stay-at-home wives who looked after the children and the house. We still expect most working families to fit into this structure, not just when it comes to hours and place of work, but also when it comes to how people are valued, remunerated and promoted. Traditional law firms are a prime example of how structures are not adjusting to modern society. Law firms still value individuals primarily on their billable hours, but as most working families know, you have a set number of hours per week which can realistically be dedicated to work and therefore it is about multi-tasking, being efficient and effective. If we do not acknowledge these fundamental issues and make changes to address them, we will continue to struggle when it comes to retaining senior level women who will ultimately take up positions on boards.

We need to start acknowledging that we are in a new world order and the supply and demand of talent needs to be realigned if we really want to encourage more women to stay and grow in the workplace.

So are quotas the answer? I think they are only part of the answer. Legislation of course is essential; flexible working legislation, equal pay legislation or part-time worker rights are all important steps. But we need a fundamental shift in how we address the issues in our workforce. Toksvig has stated that "if UKIP and the Green Party have taught us anything, actually pushing the mainstream parties to pay attention is much more successful'. Founding the Women's Equality Party is a brave and fundamental move within our political system; we now have a political party that deals with Women's issues and rights.

We now need to mirror this by taking brave and fundamental steps when it comes to our corporate structures. If we want women to "lean in" we ideally need to make sure that corporations are set up "in their very DNA" to encourage this. I am not necessarily pro mandatory quotas, but if we did have them, it could be one way for corporations, particularly those that are not as progressive, to realign their interests to allow and encourage more senior women into leadership positions.