Only a cultural shift, not quotas, will turn the tide

Boards with a high proportion of women outperform all-male boards, yet ­attitudes are still lagging behind in business.

Asked whether there would have been a financial crisis if women had been in senior positions, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, said: "If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different." She was joking of course, but was clearly making a point.

Companies across all sectors with the highest number of women on the board significantly and consistently outperform those with no female representation – by 41 per cent in terms of return on equity and by 56 per cent in terms of operating results, according to management consultants McKinsey.

And yet, despite this, there exists a monumental gender pay gap. An average woman working full-time from age 18 to 59 would lose £361,000 in gross earnings over her working life compared with an equivalent male (according to the Parliamentary Briefing on Improving Gender Pay Transparency, Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2010).

But I believe this is a symptom of the problem, not a result. It is hard to refute that we need more women taking up senior positions in business. But how can we achieve it? The answer is not, as Frozen would suggest, to have our girls believe that all men are villains and fools. Instead, we need to change attitudes in business so that men and women are valued equally.

I would like there to come a time when it is unusual to have few women at the top; when men and women are free to choose the career they want regardless of stereotype; when expressions such as ‘woman doctor’ or ‘male secretary’ become redundant. It regularly frustrates me that, while great steps are being taken to reach this state, newspaper spreads entitled ‘The Downing Street Catwalk’ comparing government ministers’ outfits and hairstyles seem to take us two giant steps back.

Any PR person knows that persuasion is far more powerful than legislation. Personally, I disagree with quotas. They should be the absolute last resort. The far better option is to cause an attitude shift that everyone welcomes.

I suggest the first port of call is to challenge the assumptions and, as women, help ourselves by being more confident about our choices.

Among the findings of recent O2 research carried out in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development at the end of 2014, more than a third of women said they lacked the confidence to ask for the promotion or pay rise that they felt they deserved.

What is more, of the women who felt their careers had met or exceeded their expectations, ‘luck’ was deemed to be the biggest factor in their success, while factors such as skill, ambition and determination hardly featured at all.

As Binna and Jo Kandola’s 2013 book The Invention of Difference: The Story of Gender Bias at Work says: "The differences we see are the ones we choose to see, and we ignore the areas where men and women are the same."

That behaviour has had its day.

Deborah Scott is deputy MD at FTI Consulting

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