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We Need a Radical Intervention to Allow Women an Equal Footing in London’s Labour Market

In a Huffington Post blog yesterday (27/03/14), Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Maria Miller acknowledged the need for a change in business culture for women to access senior positions, but suggested that government intervention cannot drive this change. However, radical government intervention, quite possibly through quotas, is the only way to address a problem that has been left far too long to ‘sort itself out’ – and one which is particularly acute in London.

Although the gender pay gap is closing in many parts of the country, it is has actually increased in London between 2002 and 2013 across the mid-range, top 25% and top 10% of earners. The median male Londoner is now earning 18% more than his female counterpart.

Unsurprisingly, women are also suffering from a lack of representation in senior positions. Women comprise just 5.8% of executive directors, and 21.8% of non-exec directors of FTSE 100 companies. A recent KPMG study showed that a man beginning his career in a FTSE 100 UK company is 4.5 times more likely to reach executive committee level than his female counterpart. Figures for FTSE 250 companies paint a more disheartening picture.

This lack of senior women is a real problem, particularly in London’s economy where such companies play such a huge role. 70% of FTSE 100 companies are headquartered in the capital – big employers representing huge opportunities currently inaccessible to women. This is also detrimental to London’s economy, with studies showing that diverse boards and senior management teams make better decisions, access stronger talent, and can be more responsive to markets; lacking diversity should be seen as a long-term threat to the UK’s competitiveness.

Not only do women add value in leadership, but their presence also impacts women throughout the employment scale; women are most likely to enter and remain in industries and businesses where they can see other women developing successful careers. We need to take practical and symbolic steps to tackle the corporate culture whereby people promote others in their own image, and the distinctly un-meritocratic ‘old boys’ network’ pervading many of our businesses.

Finally, common sense: men and women should be equally represented at different levels throughout the employment scale, and should have the same opportunities to achieve. Clearly this is not currently the case, hence the need for intervention.

It has been argued that as more women enter the workforce and access higher education, businesses will evolve to reflect this. However, women are now outnumbering men in higher education in the UK, a continuing trend for a decade now, yet the pace of change does not reflect this; a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2008) has suggested that at the current rate of change, it will take more than 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in FTSE 100 companies. Is it fair to condemn further generations of women to unequal opportunities at work while business takes its sweet time?

There are undeniably pipeline issues to be addressed – higher rates of attrition among women in business do mean that a smaller proportion of qualified women are available to fill board positions and senior management even if the demand is generated. Particularly in London, we need to address the lack of flexible work hours and high-childcare costs. But the impact of clearer career progression and role models for women in senior positions cannot be understated.

Quotas are often dismissed as a tool for increasing representation of women in senior positions, with claims that it amounts to tokenism – no woman wants to be on a board as a token member, and no board wants to carry dead-weight. However, this reflects both a worrying perspective on what women have to offer top levels of business, and a delusion that the system as it stands is a meritocratic one anyway.

Legal mechanisms have been consistently used throughout history in the UK to create de facto quotas: almost 100% of positions in public life, business, and politics have historically been a male reserve. Such mechanisms have shown themselves to be alarmingly effective in creating and sustaining cultures and patterns of employment. We owe it to the next generation to redress this imbalance quickly – why are quotas now deemed inappropriate and inadequate when utilised to combat, rather than sustain,inequality?