Women in the workplace: Fix the pipeline, don’t fix a target Mr Cameron

Janice Atkinson for The Daily Mail
9th February 2012

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David Cameron is in Sweden today discussing women on boards in the UK.

The Prime Minister is right to address the economic potential of women but I warn him explicitly that he should not make the mistake of imposing quotas and should resist targets in UK boardrooms.

He should listen to the court of public opinion – most Britons aren’t remotely interested in whether the upper echelons of our biggest companies are male or female and by focusing on it, he risks being seen as elitist and out of touch.

‘Britain Thinks’, the polling organisation run by former Blair/Brown pollster, Deborah Mattinson, carried out a substantial poll of men and women on whether quotas should be imposed upon Britain’s boardrooms. Just 18% of men and women thought that quotas would make any difference at all and half the population replied that they didn’t feel the issue of women on boards was important anyway.

Unsurprisingly, another key finding of the poll was that women were more likely to support ‘action’ than men – although support was by no means overwhelming. This gender bias runs the risk of perpetuating age old stereotypes of women only succeeding as a result of positive discrimination. The Prime Minister should make sure that any action is supported by men too or it will risk alienating men and being seen as tokenism.

Mr Cameron should not make the same mistake as New Labour. Ms Mattinson openly admitted that her polling questions were biased towards making people think that the gender imbalance was unfair and that quotas were the way forward. She and New Labour did not like the responses and she said she was happy that New Labour imposed quotas anyway.

It is essential that women are enabled to find an equilibrium in the workforce. It may be that women never achieve 50% of FTSE 100 board seats, or it may be that they far exceed that figure in the future. The key is to fix the leaky pipeline – to make sure that women are given the same opportunities as men and are given support to balance the additional choices and responsibilities that they face.

The Prime Minister should be focussing on the pipeline of women coming through the workforce and must support a narrative for women which emphasises  ability and potential rather than arbitrary targets and quotas.

I welcome the focus on the economic potential of women in the workplace but he should be focusing on the problem of the pipeline of talent. He should also be looking at shared parental leave which can be used by mum or dad equally and a revolution in childcare. These are the barriers to progress.

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