Speeding up the pace of change – after 150 years

In 1866 Millicent Fawcett and her fellow petitioners set about persuading an all-male House of Commons to give women the vote.  Her allies included Henry Fawcett, her husband, and the liberal John Stuart Mill. Everyone around her in a position of power was a man. It took over 60 years for women to be given the vote on the same terms as men.  Today the fight is defined in terms of an impatience for equality and a frustration with the pace of change.  That is why Fawcett’s 150th year strapline is Equality. It’s about time.

Just 23% of board members, less than 10% of executives and 29% of MPs are women. At current rates of progress we won’t close the gender pay gap until 2054. It is fundamental for us to understand and remove barriers to progress if we are to speed up the pace of change.

In Fawcett’s 150th year we wanted to begin by understanding attitudes to equality today and in particular, what men think. To what extent can men be seen as allies in the fight for equality, or do they simply think they will lose out? Our survey of over 8,000 people found that 7 in 10 men now think that equality between women and men is good for the economy.  86% say they want it for the women in their lives more than the 81% of women who say they want equality for themselves.  39% of men said they thought they would benefit if we had a more equal society.

The argument has been won it would seem. But we then asked those responsible for recruitment what they think – and the findings surprised us.  This group, which is a mix of men and women, were twice as likely (16%) as the overall population to be against equality of opportunity and more likely to believe they would personally lose out.  We can see the visual ladder being pulled up behind them.  On almost every measure this group are less progressive than those not responsible for recruitment and also less progressive than the wider public. The attitudes of these ‘Barrier Bosses’ will inform their recruitment decision-making.

We then asked people whether they think men at the top will make room for women –  64% of women and over half of men said ‘no’.  So although men are supportive of equality, when it comes to surrendering power themselves it is a different proposition.  This is the essence of the challenge. There is a bigger prize to be won if we create a more equal society – and in 2016 it seems more and more of us are buying into that. But it is still a zero sum game if you are fighting to get to the top of business, public or political life.  This is why we conclude we need to intervene to make it happen.  So the time-limited use of quotas to get women on boards, and all women shortlists for political selections is essential if we are to achieve significant progress. Fundamentally, a diverse group of women into positions of power matters not only because it is right, would achieve better decision-making and the best and most able to the top, but also because that is where decision-making power lies, impacting on all our lives.

You can read more of our findings in our press release here.

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Sam Smethers
Sam Smethers is the CEO of the Fawcett Society.