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Women in Business and Politics

Submitted by on 15 Sep 2011 – 17:31

Helen Grant MPHelen Grant MP, Member, Parliamentary Support Team for Women and Equalities Minister

‘Businesses do better with a decent mix of men and women in senior management and board positions’; such is the accepted wisdom within many leading economies today. Indeed the lack of gender balance in the boardrooms of public companies is now becoming internationally recognised as a defect. Gender balance produces more stable, more sustainable and more profitable businesses. These Boards also tend to make better decisions about their people, about risk and about customers, which is not surprising bearing in mind that around the globe women make the majority of consumer purchase decisions by some margin, reportedly 70% in the UK.

The only real issue, therefore, is not ‘if’ the situation should be redressed, but ‘how’. Should business efficacy and free market principles be left to lead the way? Or is it time for state imposed quotas and penalties to be used to bluntly beat our businesses into acceptance?

This often heated topic continues to maintain a high profile, following the publication of Lord Davies of Abersoch’s report ‘Women on Boards’ in February this year. Barely a week goes by without comment in the media and my own opinion reflects that of Lord Davies; let business get its own house in order, keep the issue under the spotlight but avoid direct state intervention.

The report makes several recommendations toward achieving balance in the Boardroom, initially placing responsibility for recruitment and promotion with Chairmen, investors and headhunters. But a renewed focus on human capital development at executive level is overwhelmed by the need for a general and seismic shift in attitudes, behaviour and action within entrenched male dominated environments.

For decades women have suffered from negative stereotyping within the business community and it is important to note that this has come from both sexes. Women are considered to be the default primary carers at home, being forced to juggle domestic duties with progressing careers and businesses.

And there is still a fundamental lack of confidence and aspiration holding some women back, stemming from generations of sexism. To foster confidence, I believe women can help themselves by being more assertive in their approach, and more willing to take credit for their achievements. Men too may need to become better listeners, and appraise themselves of the advantages of diversity in business.

It is heartening to have worked with some UK companies who are taking a positive approach to gender balance; the FT, HSBC and Aviva are leading forces among them. Part of the strategy is simply to keep the issue in the public and corporate eye by staging regular high profile events. I am pleased to be hosting one such event sponsored by HSBC at the Palace of Westminster in October, bringing together key women and men from business, cross party peers and MPs, journalists and senior diplomats to stimulate and encourage the debate.

Addressing the issues facing today’s cohort in the workplace is, however, only part of the cure. We also need to influence the aspirations of our younger generations to produce a steady flow of succession. People who are ready and prepared to tackle the balancing act of family and career and hungry to reap the rewards of commercial success. Starting in the early years I would like to see better, bolder, more ambitious career advice being given to our girls at school and university. Enterprise awareness should be incorporated into the education curriculum, combined with the strong promotion of female role models. This will elevate the idea of being in business as a viable career option, and as a respected, attractive and rewarding route to take. There are great examples of successful women heading up UK businesses large and small, and their stories should be broadcast and celebrated far and wide.

Gender imbalance is not confined to business, however, as is markedly demonstrated within Westminster. A healthy democracy must surely mirror the population it represents. Ours clearly does not, with only 22% of MPs being female. I shy away from quotas here too, preferring a target based approach using positive action. Ideas such as David Cameron’s Priority List, used to broaden the field in candidate selections, was a good example. This was critical in helping the Conservatives increase the number of female MPs from 17 to 49 at the last election in 2010.

The alternative all-women shortlist approach is, on the other hand, positive discrimination. It can demean a woman’s real value amongst her peers and colleagues, as well as alienate men. In politics, like business the aspiration must be the creation of fair, real and equal opportunities and where meritocracy wins the prize.

David Cameron continues to lead by example, setting a target for a third of ministerial places to be taken up by women by the end of this Parliament. This will embed experienced female mentors in our political system; women who will inevitably cross-fertilise and inspire others within the business community and the professions too.

I would also urge Ministers to reconsider the whole issue of child care. If some improvements can be made here, many capable women will be released back into the working economy as tax payers, as entrepreneurs, as wealth creators. If we couple this with more women in the Boardroom and senior executive management our economy will gain the fillip it needs to ensure growth in this austere environment.

We are at a watershed moment in the promotion of women in the UK. Whilst Government has an important role to play, legislation will not fix the problem and runs roughshod over the principals of free enterprise and meritocracy. Change must come from within if it is to be valid, sustainable and ultimately beneficial. And I believe this can be achieved through persistent, positive persuasion by enlightened leaders.