Jo Swinson speaks out against gender quotas on boards

From PoliticsHome:

Senior leaders from business and government have gone head-to-head over whether mandatory quotas are needed to get more women to the top of organisations.

At an event organised by the Institute for Government and EY, former Business Minister Jo Swinson joined forces with Department of Culture, Media and Sport Permanent Secretary Sue Owen, and Frances Dickens – the chief executive of media firm Astus UK – to argue against compulsory quotas.

Swinson – who was also one of the Liberal Democrats’ most prominent female MPs until the election – said that while progress on achieving gender equality was “nowhere near fast enough”, it did not follow that business, political parties and government bodies should face strict targets to hire more women.

She said: “I say that for three reasons: the first is that quotas can stall progress by masking deeper problems. Secondly, voluntary action can secure a more genuine buy-in at senior level to tackle the issues. And thirdly, making quotas the be-all-and-end-all is misleading when it’s much wider organisational change that’s needed.”

Interestingly, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez argued for temporary board quotas back in June, as we reported, although it is worth reading her nuances and caveats.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • nigel hunter 25th Oct '15 - 11:32pm

    Is this just people chasing the female vote? Are the feminists in full swing? Surely a business wants the best person for the position be male or female?

  • Denis Mollison 26th Oct '15 - 7:51am

    “Surely a business wants the best person for the position be male or female?”

    But a large part of the problem is that male-dominated organisations tend to favour male candidates, often not deliberately but just because they don’t fully appreciate female strengths.
    At present the Scottish Liberal Democrats sadly err in this direction – look at the effective deselection of our one current female MSP.

    I admire Jo’s purist attitude, but agree with Willie Rennie that we need to be prepared to go through a positive discrimination phase if we are to achieve gender equality over a reasonable time scale.

  • One of the most upsetting things about the “old boys network” is that as these gentlemen fail at one organisation the circle of friends find an alternative job..thereby continuing the spiral of incompetence at the top. Quotas never work but increased pressure by legislation on removing barriers is worthwhile.

  • I agree with Jo, but for different reasons.

    Discrimination on behalf of one group is discrimination against the other. All discrimination is wrong.

    Removing discrimination and ensuring a level playing field is what matters. In my experience, the lack of women at the top is due to the fact that many do not choose that career path.

  • Jenny Barnes 26th Oct '15 - 10:11am

    It used to be that there were quotas for men in many organisations, including parliament. 100%.

  • David Warren 26th Oct '15 - 10:25am

    It isn’t just jobs for the boys its jobs for the privately educated, well connected boys.

  • Good to see Jo standing up against this.

    There are two side to this that have to be considered when talking about Boards, as the question is different.

    For Execs
    The issue of businesses trying to fill a woman quota in the exec positions can result in some women who are rising being pushed from a career path that may get them more significant roles in to roles that will get them to the board quicker but actually make it more difficult to rise to more senior jobs. It was covered a while back (I think in the FT) about how many CEOs had come form the route of product development but women were often pressured to leave product development to take more operational roles, in which they could rise faster to the board but the experience the missed by leaving the more “core” areas would make it very difficult to ever become any of the “key” executives. Quick fixes may have very negative side effects.

    For Non-Execs
    There is a serious question of what the criteria should be and what is needed to avoid group think and ensuring the mix on non-execs actually is the sort of thing to ensure thegroup works correctly, are to many businesses picking too many peoepl who have simply held exec roles at other similar businesses, if so there is a risk of group think. Would more people with different experience (for example more women) help the group work better?

    Quotas may not actually improve matters, so enforcing them is not going to be great, a voluntary target may encourage more creative thinking in the non-exec space. We can only see from the effect over time (and sadly it is hard to see quick results when we are looking at individuals careers).

  • I wonder if Jo is learning from her growing experience with the issues around equal pay and finding ways of reporting it in a way that is both truly representative and meaningful.

    I think based on the findings from the investigations into equal pay, there is probably a need to get companies to report on the progress of women within the organisation, however, the purpose isn’t so much “naming and shaming”, but to get senior management to actually look at their organisation and understand just what is going on in it and to take appropriate actions. It would therefore seem that our annual company reports, whilst primarily about finance, now needs to include a Personnel/HR reporting section, in addition to the social and environmental sections.

  • Positive discrimination must be illegal since it is discrimination on the grounds of gender. Quite right, too.

  • Nearly 30 years ago I was leader of our local council group and met many bright women who wanted to do well in politics. I thought the position of women was changing and that equality within the party was achievable perhaps in the next decade or two. Obviously I was wrong. So I am sorry to disagree with Jo but I believe quotas are necessary to bring about change. I am not suggesting anything unreasonable but to ensure that some target seats have all female short lists, some have a majority of women and others to include at least one woman.
    Denis is absolutely right that male dominated organisations choose more men and that is because any organisation tends to recruit in their own mould. We need to have more people who look and speak like women to break down that prejudice, in other words to counter centuries of discrimination we need probably a generation of positive action to right this wrong. I am so pleased to see that several men agree with me. It is easy to say that all discrimination is wrong but politics is about balancing our normal human prejudices in order to achieve the greatest equality for the greatest number of people. It’s like Thatcher’s idea of trickle down wealth. How long do we have to wait for equality to trickle down?

  • I profoundly disagree with positive discrimination. The successful candidate from a rigged election can hardly feel good about it. Those discriminated against can hardly feel good about it. Everyone else will feel that they were denied a choice of the best candidates. It is entirely hypocritical to demand freedom from discrimination then employ it when it suits your wishes.

  • Can I refer Peter to Cllr Mark Wright’s entirely reasonable post. I also hope that you did not mean to imply that all female candidates are worse than men.

  • Sadie Smith 26th Oct '15 - 3:56pm

    Affirmative action gets a small way.
    Jo has been consistent, but I disagree with her.
    Quite a lot of men have proved narrow minded. We have to find an effective way to get balanced boards which operate in a balanced manner.

  • I’d suggest that a far more important discrimination is against those, of both sexes, who went to the ‘wrong school’ or have a ‘different background’…..
    Those at the top have far more in common with those from the same social/professional strata, be they male or female, than with those from a manual background….We have a political elite in all parties,with a few notable exceptions, where representation/understanding of those most affected by the current cuts are the equivalent of ‘shutting one’s eyes for a few moments and pretending to understand blindness’….

  • “The successful candidate from a rigged election can hardly feel good about it” – it doesn’t seem to unduly worry the members of all-male boards, despite the extreme unlikelihood that the best possible candidates really are all male.

  • I find it astonishing that commenters here approve of using gender discrimination to rig elections when it suits them.
    What hypocrisy, it is truly indefensible.

  • Denis Mollison 26th Oct '15 - 10:59pm

    Peter, that is straightforwardly insulting – and untrue.
    As a man, I’m recognising that we need to use gender discrimination to for a while so that we can get to a state of genuine equality. It’s no more rigging elections than the demand for votes for women was. Just look at the attitudes tof the all-male electorate to that idea, or 100 years earlier the attitude of the well-off electorate to the idea of giving ordinary people votes.

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