Voting today, quotas tomorrow…where next for women’s rights?

May 6, 2010 at 10:20 am 3 comments

By Claire McEneaney


As I made my little pencil ‘X’ in the ballot booth this morning, I offered up a silent thanks to Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davidson and all the other women who had fought so hard so that I could have my say about who I think will provide this country with the best possible future.  It seems impossible now, but it was less than 100 years ago when women were not able to vote in Britain.

Fast forward to 2010 and things have changed rather. Women arguably now have more rights and equality than ever before. Yet, are we quite there yet? Can women stand shoulder to shoulder with men and feel as valuable?

As a young woman I have been frustrated to say the least by the parties attempts to engage with my vote. My biggest concern has been our financial situation and what will be done to secure our economic future, without disastrous consequences for all of us. I want to know what will happen to me when I’m old – whether or not I’ll have a state pension, when I can retire, if I’m going to have to sell my home to finance my care.  I want to know what will be done to tackle climate change. The list goes on. I have not, and would have no intention of in the future, basing my vote on what type of biscuit a political figure likes best, politicians kissing babies, constant bombardment about maternity/paternity leave, child tax credits etc. I’m sure these things will be more influential at some point but I can’t honestly ever imagine basing my political choices on these issues alone. Just because I’m a woman does not mean I don’t understand, or care about, spending, investment and debt.

One of the attempts to woe the female vote has been the issue of introducing quotas to get more female representation on boards of businesses. Countries such as Norway have introduced legislation to gain more female board membership with great success. The legislation called for 40% of all boardroom positions to be held by women, with companies being threatened with closure if they didn’t comply. A survey of women newly appointed to board positions showed that nearly all of them had significantly higher educational and professional qualifications than the men they sit next to or replaced. A 2007 report by McKinsey looked at 89 top European companies and found those with good female representation at board-level outperformed others in return on equity and stock price growth. These are all clearly ‘good things’. But there seems to me to be a snag – would any woman want a place in the boardroom simply because of her gender?

Affirmative action is a tricky topic. Arguably, it has been successful in reducing inequality across racial, gender and age divides. But the strongest opposition around quotas for female board members has come from women themselves. Ann Widdecombe has been pretty vocal about the issue of quotas saying she would be ‘grossly insulted’ if given a front-bench position under a quota system. Many women are agreeing with her. Whatever happened to getting somewhere on your own merit? Can you really take extended maternity leave, and bend to the will of ticking biological clock, and then come back to work and be given a free pass to board membership? Is the backlash against ‘having it all’ really hitting home? Denmark’s female business leaders have just rejected a proposal to introduce gender quotas. They think it would lead to boards appointing inexperienced members just to fill the quota, further undermining women’s standing in the business world. This controversial issue is not going to go away, that much is certain.


Entry filed under: Corporations, Innovation Policy, Innovation Worldwide.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thirup  |  May 10, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Great blog Claire, and a really important issue. In Denmark we have for a quite some time, been discussing whether or not we should follow the Norwegian example. The conclusion always end up being no. The issue is that if you set quotas for women, you are on a path that leads towards quotas for all potentially discriminated groups, people with different etnicities, different ages etc. The challenge is instead to create a culture where the definition of a board member isn’t a white middleaged man, but whoever fits the job description regardless of gender. A big challenge, but better than applying quotas.

    • 2. Claire McEneaney  |  May 10, 2010 at 11:30 am

      Quite agree Peter. I was really interested to read about Denmark’s stance on the issue. I also found out that Chile has just blocked a move to extend maternity leave as female business leaders think it will jeopardise job prospects as they re-enter the job market.

      Once you start applying quotas, where do you draw the line? I think we need a culture change where women are better supported throughout their careers to achieve board level positions. Too often, women are sidelined into support and administrative roles because they aren’t supported in terms of childcare, flexible working etc.

  • 3. Andreas Moser  |  October 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    As long as women demand quotas only in boardrooms and in parliaments, but not in slaughterhouses or in coal mines, it’s an obvious ploy to get higher-paying jobs that they wouldn’t other wise get. It’s not about equality:


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