Tessa Jowell will address the Women of the World festival later today.
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"You can't be a little bit equal" - Tessa Jowell calls for boardroom quotas

Germany will require women to make up 30 per cent of members of large boards by 2020. We must do the same here.

The WOW Festival is running at London’s Southbank this week. It is a fantastic and inspiring celebration of women and girls. So in that spirit let’s start with some good news. More women are making more big decisions than ever. And it’s going to get better and better.

And the change will be better for men, as well as women. But there is much to do. The battles of the next decade will be about equal pay, flexible hours, public services that suit modern life, and breaking open the boys clubs that still dominate the higher echelons of our society.

Those are the battles that we will fight and we will win. And win we must, because as my daughter always says to me, “you can’t be a little bit equal.” And she’s dead right.

You can’t be a little bit equal - you are either equal or you’re not. And frankly we’re not. Women don’t have the same opportunities in the same numbers as men, not by a long shot. A cursory glance around the boardrooms of FTSE 100 will tell you that - even after some recent improvements, women only occupy 22 per cent of board-level positions, and there are just five female bosses.

So something has to change – and we have to make change happen.

Of course the UK Parliament is hardly an example of equal representation. Just 22 per cent of the House of Commons are women. That’s a level of female representation worse than Nepal, worse than Kyrgyzstan, and worse than South Sudan. In fact it’s worse than almost 60 other countries. 

Within the Labour Party just over a third of our MPs are women. Still far short of parity, but light-years ahead of the other major parties. Just one in six Conservatives in Parliament are women and for the Lib Dems its even less - they’ve got just seven women MPs, not one of which has Nick Clegg see fit to put in Cabinet. Not a single one.

In fact you could fit every woman Lib Dem MP there has ever been in a medium sized people carrier – a pink minibus for example.

So why are Labour so far ahead? It’s partly a result of our values of course, but it’s partly because of all-women shortlists.

Any idea that promotes women faces the same old reactionary voices seeking to hold it back. All-women shortlists were no different. Laughed at, dismissed, mocked but now accepted as a giant step forward for women’s representation.

The truth about securing real progress is that if you want change you have to take steps that guarantee change will happen. Big steps may be unpopular in the short term but if the choice is long-term improvement or fleeting popularity, I chose to fight those battles every time.  

And after the next election all-women shortlists will help Labour progress even further. A Labour majority would see women make up around 43 per cent of our parliamentary party. And whatever happens at the General Election the other parties will remain miles behind. 

It’s almost 100 years since women won the right to enter parliament, yet a century on, equal representation still feels decades away. The single biggest factor in taking things forward has been Labour’s all-women short lists - and I think they have something to say about how we get more women on boards.

Just like in Parliament women are outrageously underrepresented at the highest levels of our businesses – in top firms fewer than one in four on the board are women. Of course there are exceptions but real lasting change isn’t just about the odd woman in the odd boardroom, it’s about proper representation across the commanding heights of the economy and all the way down.

We should aim for complete change. Expectations should always run ahead of delivery – that’s the best way to guarantee progress will happen.

The problem of male domination in boardrooms drains the belief in young women that change is possible and change will happen. This is about turning that round, creating a world where a woman has just as much chance as men - but today the pace of change is too slow. So it’s time to hit fast forward.

So why don’t we look at quotas in the boardroom as well. It is inexcusable that today in 2015 women are less than half as likely to get into the boardroom as men. Inexcusable. Setting firm quotas would force open the boys club of far too many boardrooms and bring female talent flooding in.

This matters, because it will mean boardrooms will be better. Women lead in a different way, reach agreement in a different way, and exercise oversight in a different way.

In Germany it will become mandatory for 30 per cent of members of large boards to be women by 2020. I’d like to see the same thing here.

A society at ease with itself is one where women take their equal place at the head of the table. It’s a society where there are no no-go areas for women. That change won’t just be good for society – it would be good for business too.

In a report from the accounting firm Deloitte found that ‘In Europe, of 89 publicly traded companies with a market capitalisation of over £150 million, those with more women in senior management and on the board had, on average, more than 10 per cent higher return on equity than those companies with the least percentage of women in leadership.

Of course I accept that quotas are a crude way of doing things – and they don’t always work. In Norway a quota system has failed to make an impact. But that’s not a reason for not doing it, it’s a reason for getting it right.

The fact is bringing about this type of change is an important expression of the kind of society we want to be, and unless we are prepared to wait for decades for the normal course of events to takes their course we have to intervene.

Just as with all women shortlists the forces of conservatism will fight change with every fibre of their being, but they will be defeated. Like all progressive change, what one day feels impossible will soon seem inevitable.

Sitting back and waiting for change hasn’t worked and doesn’t work nearly quickly enough. From the green benches to the boardroom we have to force the pace. A fairer future is coming - let’s hurry it along.

 

Tessa Jowell is the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and speaker at the Women of the World festival, which you can follow on #wowlondon

 

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A tale of two electorates: will rural France vote for Emmanuel Macron?

His chief rival, Marine Le Pen, was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics.

It was a wet night in Paris, but hundreds of people were queuing outside the Antoine Theatre. It was standing room only to see Emmanuel Macron tonight, as it has been for weeks.

The 39-year-old former investment banker gave his usual energetic performance, delivering a well-practised pitch for a progressive, business-friendly and unabashedly pro-European France. His reward: a standing ovation and chants of Macron, président!

This theatre appearance on 8 March was an appropriate stop for a campaign that has been packed with more political drama than a series of House of Cards. Ahead of the first round of voting in the French presidential election on 23 April, the centrist independent has gone from underdog to the man most likely to beat the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. His other main rival, François Fillon of the right-wing Republicans, has been hampered by allegations that he paid his wife and children as parliamentary assistants, despite scant evidence of them doing any work.

Macron, meanwhile, has been attracting support from disenchanted voters on both left and right.

“It’s a new party, a new movement, a new face,” said Claire Ravillo-Albert, a 26-year-old human resources student and ex-Socialist in the queue outside the theatre. “We’re worlds away from the old Socialists and the Republicans here.”

Macron is not a typical outsider, having made millions in banking before serving as an advisor to François Hollande and as economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Nor can his ideas be described as radical. He is “of the left”, he says, but “willing to work with the right”.

For many he seems to embody an enticing alternative to the tired political class. Macron has never run for office before and if successful, would be the youngest president of the modern French republic. Many recruits to his one-year-old party En Marche! are young and relatively new to politics.

“I think he’ll change the French political landscape, and we need that,” said Olivier Assouline, a bank worker in an immaculate grey suit. “He knows business, he knows the state. I think he’s the right person at the right moment,” said the 44-year-old, who previously voted for right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy.

Many queuing for the rally were underwhelmed by Socialist achievements over the past five years – not least the dismal state of the economy – and had little enthusiasm for Fillon, a social conservative and economic Thatcherite.

Macron’s manifesto sticks firmly to the centre-ground. He has promised tax cuts for companies and millions of poor and middle-class families, as well as a few offbeat ideas like a one-off 500-euro grant for each 18-year-old to spend on books and cultural activities.

“With his central positioning, Macron is taking from everywhere – he has the capacity to seduce everyone,” says Frédéric Dabi, deputy director at the polling company IFOP. They estimate that Macron will take half the votes that went to Hollande when he won the last presidential election in 2012, and 17 per cent of those that went to runner-up Sarkozy.

Outside the theatre, the line was split between voters from the left and the right. But there was one word on almost everyone’s lips: Europe. At a time of continental soul-searching, Macron’s converts have chosen a candidate who backs the European Union as a guarantor of peace and celebrates free movement.

“He’s unusual in that he puts that centre-stage,” said Emma, a 27-year-old legal worker who preferred to be identified by her first name only. “Macron offers a good compromise on economic issues. But for me it’s also about Europe, because I think that’s our future.”

With Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon both languishing behind in the polls, the second round of the presidential vote, on 7 May, is likely to be a contest between Macron and Le Pen. These are both candidates who claim to have moved beyond left-right politics, and who are both offering opposing visions of France.

This is also a tale of two electorates. Le Pen was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics, traipsing around deindustrialised towns appealing to those who felt left behind by globalisation.

In the queue to see Macron were lawyers, PR consultants, graphic designers; students, gay couples and middle-class Parisians of multiple ethnicities. These are the representatives of a cosmopolitan, successful France. It was hard not to be reminded of the “metropolitan elite” who voted against Brexit.

Macron has called for investment in poorer communities, and his campaign staff pointedly invited onstage a struggling single mother as a warm-up act that night.

Yet his Socialist rival, Benoit Hamon, accuses him of representing only those who are doing pretty well already. It is hard for some to disassociate Macron from his education at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – university of choice for the political elite – and his career at Rothschild. One infamous incident from early in the campaign sticks in the memory, when he told a pair of workers on strike: “You don’t scare me with your t-shirts. The best way to pay for a suit is to work.” For Macron, work has usually involved wearing a tie.

IFOP figures show him beating Le Pen soundly in when it comes to the voting intentions of executives and managers – 37 per cent to her 18 per cent. But when it comes to manual workers, she takes a hefty 44 per cent to his 17. He would take Paris; she fares better in rural areas and among the unemployed.

If Frédéric Dabi is to be believed, Macron’s bid for the centre-ground could pay off handsomely. But not everyone is convinced.

“He’s the perfect representative of the electorate in the big globalised cities,” the geographer Christophe Guilluy told Le Point magazine in January.

“But it’s the peripheries of France that will decide this presidential election.”