Society tells us having one woman in the room is an achievement for us all – it isn’t

Rachael Revesz
·5-min read
A new report from The Pipeline shows that the biggest 350 public companies in London are more profitable if at least one in three directors are women: Getty
A new report from The Pipeline shows that the biggest 350 public companies in London are more profitable if at least one in three directors are women: Getty

For quite a while, we were all very excited about the “woman firsts”. Cressida Dick, the first woman Metropolitan Police commissioner, Jo Swinson, the first woman leader of the Liberal Democrats, or Alison Rose, the first woman CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland (of any UK high street bank, in fact). Each appointment was seen as a bastion of progress, a positive harbinger of change.

In 2020, this attitude is starting to wear thin. After all, we elected the first woman MP in 1918 and more than a century later, women MPs are still being murdered, fleeing Westminster due to sexual harassment and abuse, or having their colleagues vote against them while they’re on maternity leave.

I’m not denying that it’s extremely important to have role models inspiring the next generations of women. You can’t be what you can’t see, etc.

But one visible female face at the top, or simply one woman at the table, does little to change a workplace or culture, no matter how impressive her CV.

We need more than one woman, as the corporate-speak goes, to “reap the benefits of diversity”. A new report from The Pipeline shows that the biggest 350 public companies in London are more profitable if at least one in three directors are women. Not one at the top, or one in the boardroom – at least one in three. But this finding is not new, per se. The Hampton-Alexander government review, launched in 2016, aimed for every FTSE 350 company to have at least 33 per cent female representation at the top levels by 2020. They’re not far off the target, which is great, as there are more FTSE 100 CEOs called Peter than there are women CEOs altogether.

But given the UK gender pay gap for full-time workers has barely budged in a decade, there is little evidence that having a few more women at the top does much for women overall.

And why is that? Because we are all climbing the same greasy ladder. I’m thinking of someone who was very high up within an asset management firm who told me that growing up with brothers meant she knew how to “fit in” at work, or the woman with an OBE who claimed there was no need to pay board members on university boards because she was willing to work for free, or the most prominent female columnists in the UK who make a living from slagging off the sisterhood. With a system that was not made for or designed by women, it’s no wonder we work so hard to get to the top and then fight to stay there, rather than spend our efforts on changing the culture for others.

And who is assuming that women care more than men about gender equality? It was a woman – Liz Truss – who oversaw the decision to scrap companies’ obligation to report their gender pay gaps this year.

Rather, when a woman is appointed to a top job, I’d prefer to know about her background and what she stands for. A woman might be the head of an oil company, but that gives me no comfort whatsoever if she’s still drilling in the Antarctic.

Of course, true diversity isn’t just about hiring white women, although you might be forgiven for thinking so after seeing one million stock pictures of them smiling around boardroom tables. It’s also about diversity of class, education, (dis)ability and ethnicity. And Bame women are hit particularly hard by tokenism. For example, the UK government’s Parker Review wants to see at least one person of colour on every FTSE 100 board by 2021, and one on every FTSE 250 board by 2024 (and presumably one on every board in the country by the time that the aliens take our planet).

Another reason tokenism has to end is the undue focus and value we place on CEOs, chairs and prime ministers. They do not constitute the most value in our economy or our societies, they are paid disproportionately, and then they quickly shift gears once they’re out of the hot seat, a la Nick Clegg.

It’s time we focused on the massive numbers of people who keep the economy going and are hideously underpaid, the kind of people Boris Johnson was so keen to applaud during lockdown and then forgot immediately afterwards – the nurses, social workers, teachers, bin collectors, drivers and supermarket staff. And the majority of low paid jobs, and the majority of unpaid work e.g. childcare and care work, is done by women.

In other words, tokenism is outdated and inefficient. We don’t need to “Lean Into” a world that’s not working for us, we don’t need to become more “confident” to get that pay rise, we don’t need to wear a chunky necklace and a dress from Whistles to “blend in” in the boardroom.

So, in future, if a large company recruits its first female CEO, sure, send out the celebratory press release. But don’t send out anything for the second, or third woman. We’re on our fourth female home secretary and, well, the less I say about Priti Patel, the better.

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