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Mary Honeyball MEP: When it comes to women on boards, we must avoid ‘chicken or egg’ thinking

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Labour’s spokesperson for women in Europe writes ahead of today’s landmark vote on boardroom quotas

In a landmark moment the European Parliament is today expected to vote in favour of 40% female representation on boards by 2020. The plans, originally put forward by the European Commission’s Viviane Reding, will go to the parliament this afternoon. This represents the biggest step yet in the EU’s drive to get women into economic decision-making posts.

If the vote is passed it will not just represent a symbolic move, but a potential transformation of the way in which businesses operate. To achieve the kind of ‘cultural changes’ that Conservatives – such as the Equalities Secretary Maria Miller – propose, we surely need women to be at the top of companies making these changes happen. Today’s vote could therefore be the trigger for a sea-change in the way business is done; an effective end to the ‘boys club’ mentality.

Despite the fact that Germany – Britain’s most direct business competitor – this week signalled a commitment to quotas, the UK remains among the rump of EU countries which still favour voluntary or no action. This is a stance which will come under scrutiny if today’s vote is passed and goes to the Council of Ministers (the body comprising the domestic leaders of the 28 Member States) to make the final call.

With Cameron currently among the seven or so national leaders expected to block the proposals, the government will have to explain how they expect to achieve gender parity without quotas. In light of the huge success that binding legislation has had in accelerating progress in France, Italy and Holland this will be a difficult case to make. Despite being Europe’s financial capital, Britain could once again find itself swimming against global tides as a Europe-wide consensus on gender equality builds.

The claim the government makes is that getting women onto boards will not change the ‘fundamental’ issue. The Department for Business propose instead an educational and cultural approach, which they say will get women into executive positions from the ‘bottom up’. When I discussed this with Conservative MEP Marina Yannakoudakis on the Daily Politics programme yesterday she was keen to distinguish between non-executive positions and “other levels of business”. The Tory strategy is clear: depict women on boards as a sideshow – an impediment to focusing on the lack of women in management.

For me this argument is flawed. It suggests that getting women onto boards must either be the catalyst for a change in business culture or the product of it – that there can only be one, exclusive solution to this problem. This is an example of ‘chicken or egg’ thinking gone mad. It presents a false binary, as though getting women into boardrooms and making businesses more female-friendly lower down somehow contradict one another.

In fact, they are mutually reinforcing; more balance in the boardroom means a company ethos more sympathetic to women, which in turn increases the chances of women rising to board level. A virtuous circle is created. Higher quality part-time or flexible work, for example, is for me one of the best methods of preventing a pay gap opening up while women are in their thirties and forties (and thus approaching boardroom age). But it is something which companies are far less likely to consider if they do not have confident female advocates among their directors.

For Britain to capitalise on the positive result we hope to get from today’s vote, we must therefore stop the UK government from turning the women on boards issue into an artificial ‘top-down vs bottom up’ choice. To genuinely overcome the glass ceiling we need both: women pushing from below and women pulling them up from above. Gender parity from the tip to the base of the jobs pyramid.

With a Europe-wide consensus approaching on this issue, we must increase pressure on the UK government to be proactive. We can no longer pretend that a fairer workplace will take place in splendid isolation.

Mary Honeyball is MEP for London and Labour’s spokesperson for women in Europe. She tweets at @maryhoneyball

 

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