John Stuart Mill would have been outraged that, in the second decade of the 21st century, women are still under-valued, exploited and under-represented, for it was he, speaking in the House of Commons in May 1867, who advocated votes for women.
Yet, here we are 150 years later, still trying to have equality in our society. Yes, we have women’s suffrage, but at the present rate of change, we will not have a gender balanced Parliament until 2050.
Rwanda has it now.
Women are invisible to the majority of those in power. Yet it is visibility that will change the way women are perceived. This lack of female role models affects younger generations too. Just look at our media. Look at how women are portrayed in mass circulation papers and television programmes. All of this has an influence on the attitudes of some men – and boys too. If women are not seen as decision makers, not as spokespeople for a community, nor as having economic or political clout, then is it any wonder that some boys and men feel they can treat girls and women the way that, what appears to be a significant minority, do?
Business may be hard, competitive and there may indeed be failures, but the government aim of 25% of boardroom members being women is not going to be achieved by 2015. Nor will the number of executive directors who are women be increased without changing the way we do business.
Nor is this approach new – certainly not to Liberals or Liberal Democrats! The 1870 Education Act provided for elementary education for the working class; the 1906 Liberal government provided pensions for the aged poor; the Welfare State was designed by Beveridge and more recently, the Pupil Premium designed to help children from poorer homes. All of these measures were and are to change society by providing institutional mechanisms for doing so and because it was recognised that without them, our economy would do worse.
So, what would be the effect of more women in senior positions in our companies?
Research outlined by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) shows clearly that ‘the quality of corporate governance and ethical behaviour is high in companies with high shares of women on boards’. Given some of the behaviour of some major enterprises, which has emerged since the onset of the crisis, boards need this balance more than ever.
With more than 50% of the population and 67% of university graduates, women should be able to feel that the system is treating them fairly; that an application for a senior post will not be dismissed, or given to a less able man, simply because the candidate is a woman.
I don’t want tokenism. I want a fair society and one which work effectively. In short, I want Liberal values put into action. That calls for boards with more women, but the fact is that companies are simply not heeding the calls. If we want a fair and effective economy, we need real change – now. That is why I support the European Commission’s proposals for a minimum of 40% men and 40% women on company boards.
* Flo Clucas OBE is the President of the ALDE Gender Equality Network and former President of the ALDE Group on the EU Committee of the Regions. She was a councillor in Liverpool City Council for 26 years.