The Independent View: Why the women-in-the-boardroom brand of feminism is limited

The government has reaffirmed its commitment to encourage firms to put more women on their boards in the wake of the launch of the first annual progress report on Lord Davies of Abersoch review of Women on Boards. In the run up to International Women’s Day last week various high profile women, from Cherie Blair to Jeanette Winterson, also argued that gender parity on company boards is the defining issue for women’s equality.

Much of the debate has centred on how to get there. The government favours a light touch approach, hoping businesses will see sense in response to Ministerial encouragement. Others call for the UK to follow Canada, Denmark in adopting more active tactics, from quotas to ‘comply or explain’ legislation.

The argument is often made that more women in Parliament and in the boardrooms will change the nature of economic and political power. Head of the IMF Christine Lagarde for example suggested that the financial crisis may never have occurred had Lehman Brothers been called Lehman Sisters and boasted a more gender-balanced boardroom.

But women are not genetically engineered to be more progressive than men (no more so than they are programmed to be more ‘empathetic’ and so better suited to caring roles). This view conveniently dismisses Maggie Thatcher as the illiberal exception, but there are plenty more. John Pilger was right to chastise Germaine Greer and other prominent feminists for cheering the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the basis of her gender, ignoring her poor record on Aboriginal rights. Many women, once indoctrinated to the corridors of power, may take on the received wisdom, culture and values of the institutions they occupy. As do most men.

We should welcome any attempt to create a more open and representative world. But the women-in the boardroom brand of feminism will only bring about widespread transformation if those women (and men) who do well challenge and change the nature of power.

Without more democratic, fairer ways of distributing power and resources – at home, work and in politics – it’s hard to see how a female elite will change life for the vast majority of women. Traditional roles in the home are still the great barrier to equality between couples, as IPPR research has shown, while for many poorer and lone mothers the cost of childcare is the overwhelming constraint.

Unless we hold women in power to this principle, there’s a danger that the (slow) rise of women towards the front benches and up company ranks gives the semblance of fairness and equality that is in reality yet to be realised.

All-women shortlists, while certainly desirable, mustn’t detract from wider struggles such as the value afforded to the jobs that (mostly) women do, such as care of children and the elderly. We need a politics of gender that facilitates healthy working, family and community life and at the same time empowers men and women to achieve all they can as individuals. The priorities should be a living wage, flexible working, and free universal childcare to allow all parents to participate in working, family and civic life. More women on boards, yes, but we should demand they don’t just offer more of the same.

* Tess Lanning is a research fellow at IPPR. She is leading on a project on ‘women across generations: aspirations and opportunities’.

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  • The people who get to the top of any organisation tend to be those who are most single-minded about it, and they tend to appoint in their image, regardless of their gender. The only way to change this is to have people in charge who are not single-minded. But they are by definition the ones who are less bothered about getting to the top.

    We need to break the cycle somehow.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th Mar '12 - 4:13pm

    “We need to break the cycle somehow.”

    Compulsory therapy for type A personality types – not very liberal, but it would make life a lot easier for the vast majority of us!

  • TBNGU – you employ the Zaphod Beeblebrox dictum: anyone who actively seeks office is automatically debarred from taking it. Appoint representatives in the same way you select jurors.

  • Excellent article, thank you Tess.

    The high and rising levels of women’s unemployment are also a concern. Highest level of unemployment since the 80’s if I recall. Or will it become a case of “will the last 10 women in work please step into the boardroom”?

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