Two of the talks I’ve been to this weekend (so far) have mentioned something that I’ve struggled to accept in recent years. Quotas. I’ve never been convinced about them either way. Do they help women? Are they tokenism? Does it help the cause of female advancement? I’ve always felt that there are a lot of good arguments on both sides but it’s been interesting to hear a number of speakers come out and say that they think they are necessary.
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC spoke this morning at the Women, Power and Change session. She’s an incredibly smart woman, and a fantastic speaker and she came out quite clearly and said that quotas were the way forward. When she entered the Bar, before the 1976 Sex Discrimination Act, only 8% were women. So how far have we come? The current Supreme Court of 12 judges has one woman on it. Not very far at all. Women are still under-represented on boards, in parliament, in Cabinet and in all powerful institutions. Baroness Kennedy argues that this will not change without quotas. Women get stuck where they are, partially because they buy into the dominant ideas in our culture which tell them that quotas are unfair. But men in power talk up younger men coming up through the ranks, who remind them of themselves. Invisible forces like this won’t be broken through unless they are compelled to break them down. Intriguingly, Baroness Kennedy went on to argue that for senior directors and managers bonuses should have a measurable performance indicator related to promoting diversity.
People absorb the story that quota are bad for women as no-one wants to promote a mediocre woman above a man who is better. But why do we assume that all that’s out there are mediocre women? Or that the men that are promoted currently are not mediocre? Plenty of them are and there is no shortage of brilliant, qualified women in most fields who could live up to any role.
Baroness Kennedy went on to talk about merit. We currently have systems where people are promoted on ‘merit’ but who decides what the criteria are? Men who currently hold the power decide on the list of criteria when recruiting. If women were appointed to senior roles, that list could change and might open the playing field for future applicants without the need for quotas. Merit is not a neutral term as it’s currently assumed to be. It has context and the current context is one in which men are in power and make decisions.
This was an incredibly powerful argument and really opened my eyes to the extent to which I had bought the line that quotas were bad for women in the long run. I wasn’t taking the context of merit into account.
Her thoughts echoed some that were made yesterday in the Selling Us Short? session on advertising – who decides how products are advertised and how are women represented in ad agencies? The consensus of the panellists was that there were very few women at a senior creative level, although they were well represented elsewhere in the industry. Towards the end of the discussion chair Rita Clifton asked what would change this. Andrew Cracknell (a former agency Creative Director and author of The Real Mad Men) reluctantly argued that quotas are probably ‘the right thing to do’. He worried that the first women who were promoted or brought in to fulfill a quota would suffer a backlash but that it was proven to work in countries like Norway. Looking back now, I think his comments about the backlash may have come from thinking that men would think the women didn’t merit being there, but I would not agree with him having heard Baroness Kennedy’s comments.
Gail Parminter (founder of her own agency Madwomen) thought that quotas were difficult in a creative role as you need talent, drive and passion to succeed. But again, why did she assume that women out there didn’t have that? She did argue for a need for role models though and that the few women in these positions currently need to reach out to the next generation. Maybe this is where quotas would help – in creating more role models to reach out.
Kate Stanners also mentioned that she hated the idea of quotas as she felt that women wouldn’t be there on merit. I think Baroness Kennedy disproves this point.
Harriet Harman (Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Shadow Deputy Prime Minister) commented that we all hate quotas and find them problematic as it feels like meritocracy is being constrained by them. However, she did feel that sometimes there is no change without them and they are a means to an end. They have worked with MPs to an extent and that focusing initially on targets may be a way to start.
The Selling Us Short? panel had mixed feelings on quotas all round, and probably echoed my own mixed emotions but I’ve really had my thoughts clarified by Baroness Kennedy’s discussion of why they work and why they are necessary. I now see more clearly that the advertising panelists thought about merit in a way that was lacking in context. It’s been fascinating to see two quite different sessions at the festival have the same issue come up but in different ways. The real benefit of a festival like this is to tease out these issues and think about them in new ways benefitting from the experience of women who have fought their way to the top of their careers. We absolutely need to have these tough conversations if anything is going to change.