The success of all-women shortlists risks masking the issues they were meant to solve

 Without tackling the underlying issues, a gender quota will largely see the slots filled with white, privately educated Oxbridge women.

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This International Women’s Day, I decided to vary my usual routine – it’s hard to find a coven on a bus route from south London – and went to a meeting of Labour women. At the end, they passed around a sign pledging their support for all-women shortlists and proudly posed for photos. I started preparing my excuses, because something indefinable about all-women shortlists (AWS) has always bothered me.

I know what bothers some other people: they work. Labour’s decision to use them in 1997, an election in which the party gained 146 seats, meant that the Commons dropped from more than 90 per cent male to 82 per cent overnight. Cultural change followed. In committee rooms and party meetings, women found themselves having a genuinely new experience: not being the only woman in the room. That made arguing for better childcare a less lonely task, and Harriet Harman’s strong support among the women’s Parliamentary Labour Party gave her the power to champion the Equality Act in the dying days of the Brown government.

The dull argument that AWS would lead to mediocre women being selected to make up the numbers is hard to support. First, many of the most impressive Labour MPs – Angela Rayner, Jess Phillips, Lisa Nandy – were selected from all-women lists. Second, there is no shortage of mediocre men in the Commons. The Tory party also seems quite able to elect mediocre women without needing positive discrimination to do so.

It was only by looking somewhere else entirely that I’ve managed to crystallise my worries about all-women shortlists. In the past few years, London theatres have undergone an overdue reckoning with their cultural elitism, facing pressure to expand gender, racial and class diversity among their writers and directors. Who makes art matters, because we tend to create in our own image, and to see the dominant gaze as a universal one. Men write about "the American dream" or the "state of the nation"; the struggles of male protagonists embody the "human condition"; Everyman is. . . well, a man. Art by women and minorities is usually seen as articulating a more narrow experince.

However, the response to this (correctly identified) problem has been, often, a call to introduce quotas: gender-balanced casting across a season, an equal number of male and female writers and directors, and so on. Artistic directors who haven’t immediately responded have been portrayed as dinosaurs.

But here’s the thing. Say your industry is dominated by men, which often means white, privately educated Oxbridge men. Institute a gender quota without tackling the underlying issues and you’ll largely fill the slots with white, privately educated Oxbridge childless women (hi, call me!). And that’s not bad, as long as it’s not the end of the conversation.

Handing a golden ticket to the women who can behave most like privileged men is a very partial answer to the problem, but it massages the figures wonderfully. Similarly, using Oxford and Cambridge as a blunt indicator of privilege ignores the fact many working-class pupils choose these universities specifically to offset the advantages of their richer, private-school peers.

Overall, I worry that we give more credit to people who do the shiny stuff and take the resulting lap of honour than those who ask the really tough questions, and argue for slower action to reform structures. This allows movements such as feminism to be co-opted as a branch of marketing: just last week, I listened to a studio executive explain that the new Lara Croft film was the most “badass” yet, and realised that I was supposed to be grateful. As if watching an attractive woman in a sweaty vest kick people in the groin would, by some mysterious trickle-down effect, solve the pay gap.

Too often, the great “enwokening” of the arts has led to a shallow, surface engagement with diversity. And that’s had unfortunate side effects. Women and minorities get pushed forward too fast with inadequate support, and some of them fail. Reactionaries take this as confirmation that they weren’t very good anyway. (In business, there’s a related phenomenon known as the glass cliff: failing companies bring in a woman on the basis that things can’t get any worse.) Those promoted under this system are haunted by the idea they were token appointments. This turbocharges the impostor syndrome that marginalised people are more likely to suffer in the first place.

The best place to solve inequality isn’t at the end. It’s at the beginning. Don’t just ask for 50/50 casting; ask for a crèche. Don’t hand-wring vaguely about the lack of working-class voices in the arts. Start an outreach programme. Introduce training schemes, paid at a level that allows those whose parents can’t subsidise their early careers to participate. Don’t airlift out the most privileged members of a marginalised group and congratulate yourself. Address the material conditions that lead to disadvantage, because racial inequality is inextricably linked to economic inequality. It’s the same with disability. Ultimately, there’s an easy way to tell if an anti-discrimination measure will be effective: it will cost money.

In the case of women, “material conditions” often – but not always – means biology. When I wrote about childlessness and politics in 2014, it was a shock to realise how many senior female politicians don’t have children, whether by choice or circumstances. And those who do often benefit from a partner whose career has taken a back seat – such as the husband of New Zealand’s Labour prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who will be a stay-at-home dad to their first child, due this summer. Calling for female representation without addressing the burden of unpaid care actually makes things worse for most mothers.

And that, finally, is my niggling unease both with quotas and all-women shortlists. Used glibly and unthinkingly, they encourage a version of “teaching to the test”, disguising the reasons they were needed in the first place. “Better than nothing” is not the same as good enough. 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special