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Don't worry about the glass ceiling -- the basement is flooding, says Laurie Penny

Let's not pretend that a few more skirt suits in the palaces of finance will deliver the change that women need.

The world is going wild for lady bankers. For the first time, a woman, Christine Lagarde, is in charge of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), her tender hand stewarding the institution away from the testosterone-sodden tenancy of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Meanwhile, the press is profiling high-ranking female executives, such as the Facebook chief, Sheryl Sandberg, and a new campaign group, the 30 Per Cent Club, is working to increase the representation of women in FTSE 100 company boardrooms from around 13 per cent to just under a third.

It is implied that doing so will turn banking into a caring industry, in which profits soar like bluebirds in corridors that ring with the clatter of Manolos on marble. There are three distinct problems with this hypothesis.

The first is that it's arrant twaddle, based on cod science and lazy stereotypes. The 30 Per Cent Club's claim that companies with more women bosses tend to perform better wasn't pulled out of thin air but it hasn't been proven that this is because women's pink and squishy brains make them more careful investors, as the pseudoscience of "neuroeconomics" suggests -- it could simply be that more progressive companies tend to hire more women.

Sexism is rife in the City of London. The Fawcett Society's Sexism in the City campaign in 2008 drew attention to a culture of unequal pay, disregard for the practicalities of childcare, laddish posturing and business deals done in strip clubs.

Yet it is ludicrous to suggest, as many have done, that if we were to temper the big, bad boy's world of business with a few more fragrant females, then these institutions would suddenly become a force for good.

Lagarde can certainly work a pencil skirt -- the Observer's gushing profile heralded her as "the world's sexiest woman" -- but that won't stop the IMF imposing austerity measures across the eurozone that will leave many unemployed and destitute.

The second problem with this obsession with female representation in business is its cynicism. Speaking on 5 July at a seminar organised by the 30 Per Cent Club, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, suggested that "more diverse boards are better boards" because they "outperform their male-dominated rivals".

As Minister for Women and Equalities, May should know that we pursue equality in the workplace because it's good for women, not because it's good for business.

Trying to justify feminism on the basis of profit is dangerous because, at its root, feminism is pretty bad for business. Maternity provisions, equal pay, higher taxes to finance a welfare state that supports hard-working mothers -- all of these things cost money and affect returns.

May recognised this in December 2010, when she scrapped the Labour government's plans to compel employers to publish equal-pay audits -- a move that was applauded by the City of London.

The third problem with this "trickle-down" feminism is that giving women more power at the top of the socio-economic pile does not necessarily increase the power of women at the bottom of the heap.

Ensuring that a slightly larger minority of females get to wield power in finance does next to nothing for the cause of women's liberation, because the real issue is not that women have too little power in business but that business has too much power. Three years of global economic meltdown have dispelled the liberal delusion that making life easier for the men and women in the boardrooms of London and Wall Street makes life easier for everyone else.

Trickle-down feminism is as nonsensical a liberation strategy as trickle-down wealth redistribution. The problem with a glass ceiling is that nothing trickles down. While we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement -- and the basement is flooding.

There is nothing wrong with personal ambition. After all, if equality means anything, it means the right for a woman to be as much of a ruthless, power-hungry bastard as any man and to be judged accordingly.

Let's not pretend, however, that a few more skirt suits in the palaces of finance will deliver the change that women need.

This post was written with the help of Zoe Stavri.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.