Friday, November 20, 2009

(In?)-Equalities Bill

In the Queen’s speech this week we found out some details about Harriet Harman’s Equalities Bill. And I don’t like it. The bill proposes that firms will have to prove their commitment to the equal rights agenda to win tax-payer funded work worth a total of more than £200bn.

The bill has immediately proven to be unpopular with small businesses, who claim it will make it even harder for them to win public sector contracts, as they will be lost in bureaucracy and disadvantaged by the numbers game.

But I object on a more fundamental level.

I am a feminist and I find this to be an incredibly patronising and misplaced ‘positive’ discrimination. Tweeting my dislike for the bill I was pointed, by a fellow twitterer, to the Norweigan example of female quotas for boards as an successful outcome from such legislation. The idea, I suppose, is that the end justifies the means. Equality, this all suggests, is a numbers game and we can all declare victory and go home once women and men occupy all the positions we value in society in equal numbers.

But hang on a minute, surely that misses the point? If you believe (as I do) that equality is not about outcomes but opportunities, then the numbers of women on the board can only ever be an indicator, not a conclusion. Personally, I don’t give a monkey’s bottom how many women occupy board positions – as long as every woman who wanted one of those seats was given the opportunity to compete and was judged fairly and regardless of sex.

What woman would want to occupy a board position knowing she was there to make up her company’s numbers? Her colleagues would know likewise and her opinions and ability to do her job would be severely undermined. Through actions like this we drive sexism underground into a deep seated resentment.

An article in last weekend’s Sunday Times Magazine gave great detail about the successes that women are seeing in our society. School grades outstrip those of the boys, female university graduates outnumber male, the predominance of male doctors is being balanced, ‘female’ (urgh) skills are central to the UK’s services economy and this (combined with increasingly flexible employment conditions) have meant that the recession has affected men in the workplace more than women. We are also members of a society where increasing single parent families (read; single mum-headed families) are producing boys lacking in male role models, unable to cope with their own biology and massively underperforming.

I am not suggesting for a moment that the battle is won. Nor can we stop in our efforts for equality because female successes inevitably cause a rebalance in male successes. There are multiple forces at work here, all of which need addressing.

However I fundamentally cannot believe, with so many examples of women successfully breaking through the glass ceiling and simple economics and market dynamics driving companies to recognise the benefits of female input, that the focus of legislation should be at such an elite level.

Girls need to be given fair access to education, exposed to powerful role models and allowed to achieve their own ambitions. If women cannot compete for board seats on their own merits then there is a problem further down the chain. I fear for a society where we develop resentful male / female professional relationships and promote individuals on the basis of quotas rather than ability.


cardinalsin said...

Em, that is not how the Bill works.

"The Equality Bill will expand the way positive action can be used so that employers can pick someone for a job from an underrepresented
group when they have the choice between two or more candidates who are equally suitable, provided they do not have a general policy of doing so in every case." (From the Equalities govt website)

So all the Bill does is allow you (not force you) to choose between two equally suitable candidates (not one less good than the other). And it bans you from having a policy of doing so in every case.

That said, even if it did, I have some philosophical disagreements which I will share in a separate comment...

cardinalsin said...

"I am a feminist and I find this to be an incredibly patronising and misplaced ‘positive’ discrimination."

I don't agree with you, though what you say sounds reasonable on the face of it. I find it hard to fully express why (some of it is gut feel) but here are some thoughts:

- You'll never get equal opportunity as long as it's men deciding who gets to join the board (and as long as you don't get equal opportunity it will be men deciding, completing the circle)

- I don't for a minute believe that currently the top positions are filled entirely on merit without any sexism built in. I don't believe that the most able women find it as easy to get to positions of power as the most able men.

- It might be that positive discrimination would lead to some temporary injustice in the form of some slightly less-qualified women getting into positions of power. However, I do not for a minute believe that there are not enough well-qualified women out there to fill half the top roles, which suggests to me that this problem should be comparatively minor.

- Once you have got women into positions of power, the whole system rebalances. It becomes easier to get through positive changes in other areas, overturning the rules and prejudices which have kept women out of the top jobs before that point. In essence, the trailblazers who got there in the first place using positive discrimination can remove the need for positive discrimination.

- Basically I think your view makes the perfect the enemy of the good. In an ideal world good principles like equality of opportunity would sort the whole thing out. The men who have dominated at the top for so long would just fix the situation in a completely fair way. But we aren't in an ideal world, and given how many well-qualified, well-educated women there are in most workplaces it is shocking how much the top is still dominated by men.

But like I said, the Bill doesn't actually do what you're saying it does - so the argument is bit moot.

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