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6 March 2015

“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.

By Tessa Jowell

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.

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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