Women’s careers die in childbirth – why I support quotas

One of my favourite sayings about women is this ancient Chinese proverb: ‘Women hold up half the sky’. But despite making up around 50% of the planet’s population, women are undoubtedly disadvantaged to a greater or lesser degree in probably every country in the world. Women do 66% of the world’s work, according to the United Nations, and produce 50% of its food. But they earn 10% of global income and own just 1% of property in the world. Indeed, they comprise 70% of the world’s poor. In many countries, they are appallingly repressed, deprived of basic human rights and treated as the chattels of their husbands. Every minute of every day, a woman dies from childbirth or pregnancy-related complications – that’s over 500,000 a year. In Malawi, the maternal mortality rate is 1 in 36. Many of these dead mothers will be little older than children themselves.

In the developed world, death in childbirth may be a rare phenomenon, but child-bearing seems to kill off women’s careers. While girls do better at school, go on to study at university and enter the professions and other top careers in large numbers, they seem to fall off the ladder in equally large numbers once they hit their thirties and stop having families. Of course, some women choose to put their family above their career and that is their own, perfectly valid, choice. But other women struggle to balance the two and end up having to make terrible sacrifices because employers are often unwilling to be even a little flexible. And in this climate, where people are afraid of losing their jobs, employers hold the upper hand.

To add to the problems associated with the ‘family factor’, women are often their own worst enemies when it comes to driving their career success. A major challenge is that women seem to persist in believing that all you need to succeed is to be good at your job. Recognition and reward will surely follow, right? Wrong, wrong and wrong. Although being good at your job is an important building block, of course, you need more than that to climb to the top. There are plenty of examples of talented people who have fallen by the wayside and people with comparatively limited capabilities who have held some of the biggest roles around. George W Bush was twice elected as president of the United States. That alone should tell you something about the direct correlation between aptitude and power. And I am sure that everyone reading this can think of at least one manager they have known over the years who was promoted beyond their abilities.

So what else do you need to succeed in your career? Firstly, you need to be a good networker – as Woody Allen once put it: “80% of success is showing up”. Secondly, you need to put yourself forward. Forget about being modest – go out there and tell everyone how great you are. This is something men seem to do a lot more naturally than women (even when it isn’t justified). Thirdly, you need to master the art of positive thinking and looking on the bright side – women tend to worry a lot more than men. This is a bad habit (one that I have) and one that we need to get on top of. We also need to stop apologising and stop feeling guilty. I know, I know – it’s easier said than done!

Unfortunately, one of the big issues with diversity is that we have to battle against thousands of years of evolution and the assumptions that have been created by that evolutionary process. Women might have had the vote in the UK since 1918, but they have been dying in childbirth since the beginning of time. Men are used to surviving the wilds of the forest and wrestling with wild boars; women were long tied to the caves and their children and were frankly thankful that they were still alive to see another day. ‘Unconscious bias’ is known to be one of the enemies of diversity – this is bias influenced by factors such as social environment, upbringing and culture. In other words, we are mostly likely to hire people like ourselves. At a deep level, I also think that evolution influences unconscious bias and evolution is a very difficult barrier to overcome.

Hence we reach the subject of quotas. Hardly anyone (either male or female) seems to support the idea of female quotas for the boards of companies. The reason for this is that we want to be recognised on merit. Or at least, women apparently do – whether a man would be stupid enough to think about turning down recognition he didn’t deserve, I don’t know. Unfortunately, we can’t ask Sir Jimmy Savile because he is dead. Seeking recognition on merit alone is very sweet and very noble of us women, but sadly it isn’t going to get us very far. When you’re tackling the status quo, change generally has to be forced. How many chief executives reform their companies by making a few tweaks here and there and hoping their employees will get the subtle message and pull their fingers out? Organisational change in companies is generally brutal with plenty of casualties along the way. At present, women constitute 17.5% of board directors among the UK’s FTSE 100 companies, according to accountancy body ACCA. That is a pitifully low figure, especially when many of these will be non-executive rather than executive roles.

So what happened to all those brilliant girls who flew through school and university? Their careers died in childbirth, that’s what. Serious discrimination against women does exist in British business and anyone who believes it doesn’t is kidding themselves. And the higher you go, the worse it can be. That’s why I believe that the only way that we will see real change in the make-up of business at a senior level is if companies are forced to bring talented women through their ranks. This will also mean that they have to be more accommodating when female employees have very young children. In the short term, it is undoubtedly unpleasant to enforce diversity objectives. But as we have learned from the banking crisis, sometimes we need to think about the longer term. And at the moment, there is a massive pool of female talent going to waste.

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