Review – Women at the top: time for quotas? event

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Last night we kicked off our 150th anniversary celebrations with our first event of the year, a panel debate discussing the need for quotas for women in top level positions in the private and public sector.

Damian Lyons Lowe, CEO of Survation, the agency behind Sex Equality 2016: State of the Nation, our most recent report, set the scene by sharing some of the more significant findings, and the facts and figures behind our news stories last week. He also provided us with a word cloud made up of words people associated with feminism – from ‘equality’ to ‘biased’ to ‘trouble’ – it’s interesting to see. You can find Damian’s presentation with the findings here, and the full tables here.

The event provoked some interesting debate and some passionate arguments, seemlessly chaired by Darshna Soni of Channel Four News and starting with Seema Malhotra MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is a supporter of quotas in the political sphere and all women shortlists. Next up, concerned that quotas would sabotage any possibility for a fundamental shift in cultural attitudes towards women in the workplace, Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, responded with a case for targets over quotas to enable attitudinal change to flourish.

Ann added that the ‘threat of quotas’ followed up by increased pressure on organisations to be transparent about the gender ratios of their workforces would instead produce the desired change in culture. Charlotte Proudman, a barrister in family law, rebutted with a thorough analysis of institutional sexism, and championed quotas as a mechanism for the dissolution of traditional power structures in institutions.

Charlotte called for males in senior roles to recognise their networking advantages and share these with aspiring women in the workplace. Intense debate was sparked by the introduction of the final panellist, Heather Jackson, Executive Chair and Founder of An Inspirational Journey, who argued that a key factor in the low percentage of women at the top was predominantly an issue of supply and not of demand, putting the onus on individual women.

Quotas: more harm than good?

A lively round of questions from the audience ensued, with a distinct divide quickly forming between those in favour of quotas, and those that believed quotas would do more harm than good. Animated debate between the panel and audience members covered issues such as sexist bias in recruitment, the will of males and females in senior roles to encourage women to pursue management positions, the economic case for women in the workplace, and whether or not attitudes towards female career progression will change without the aid of government intervention. The debate was vibrantly rounded-off with a member of the audience arguing that the debate on quotas does not require justification and is as simple and uncomplicated as a call for gender equality; 50:50.

Some key questions posed to the panel by the audience:

  • Should quotas only be enforced across public institutions?
  • Would reversed quotas help to remove the distinct divide between male and female dominated professions, for example in primary teaching?
  • Would introducing female quotas undermine the achievements of individual women in the workplace? Would quotas create resentment and demotivate male staff?
  • Is there an issue of male engagement in the quotas debate?
  • Should quotas instead be introduced to cap the numbers of men in senior positions in the workplace, to reverse the current onus on woman to have to prove their value over and above their male counterparts?
  • And finally, on a more humorous note: should the ‘informal boardroom’ – the men’s washrooms – be replaced with unisex loos?

You can watch the full live stream of the event over on our YouTube page.

Catch up on what people were talking about on Twitter with #womenatthetop.

With the kind help of Audioboom UK, we also captured some snippets from the speakers, during and after the event, which you can find on our Audioboom page – you can listen to Heather’s thoughts on the event below. 

What do you think about quotas? Leading expert Rainbow Murray has written for our blog debunking some myths she believes are holding quotas, and therefore women, back. Let us know if you disagree!

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