Today, Thursday 8th March is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women everywhere. The UN theme for International Women’s Day 2012 is Empower Women – End Hunger and Poverty. This is a recognition that empowering women is the most effective way to combat hunger and poverty. This has been shown by countless studies in many parts of the world. Examples of programmes which focus on women include Bolsa Familia in Brazil and Oportunidades in Mexico, both of which are the subject of this article from the New York Times.
However, even in countries such as the UK, where hunger and poverty is not so widespread, empowering women is something we should all be promoting. As the father of two daughters, I should declare a special interest in this issue. But much though I love both my daughters and want them to do well, my interest in empowering women is thoroughly selfish. My future wellbeing is much more likely to be assured if there were more women in top positions. Whether it is politics, business, education, health, whatever, I want to see lots more women at the top. The reason is quite simple. All the evidence from study after study shows that important qualities and competences such as intelligence, drive, leadership, creativity etc are equally distributed between men and women. Therefore it should follow that more or less half the positions at all levels should be held by women. This includes the very top posts - the managing directors, chief executives, boards of directors etc. If not, then the best qualified and most competent people are not occupying some of these vitally important positions.
We need look no further than the banking and financial sector. This is a sector which at the top level is almost totally run by men. And we are all having to suffer from the damage they been done. A perfect example of what can happen when you exclude one half of the population from positions of power. Most of the men who run our banks and financial companies have shown a degree of incompetence that is hard to equal. It seems very hard to argue that having more women at the top could have resulted in anything worse. While banking and finance is an obvious example of where we are all let down by the current gender imbalance at the top, other areas of life are pretty close seconds. Government and parliament, especially Westminster are notorious bastions of male privilege. We can and need to do better.
One approach to rectify this gender imbalance is to make it a legal requirement that public concerns have at least 40% of senior posts held by women. This requirement would be introduced gradually, say over five or seven years. The legal requirement could also apply to companies that receive public monies or bid for publicly financed contracts. No doubt there will be howls of outrage at such a suggestion. But all firms, whether public or private have to comply with the law. And parliament has over the years put in place all kinds of legal requirements on all business - health and safety is a prime example. Businesses always complain, but hey, just get on with it. The world did not come to an end when the 10 hour working day was ended!
The advantage of this kind of approach is that it would force companies and public services to introduce the necessary child care arrangements and facilities to enable large numbers of women to fill these senior posts. It would also likely lead to a revaluation of the importance of child care and early years education and many other issues that currently get dismissed as women’s issues. As if boys do not need good child care or men do not need good care and attention when ill or old. It is not as if something like this has not been done already. Norway introduced such a requirement some years ago. By a Conservative minister in a Conservative led government. The results have proved beneficial for all concerned. So, what’s holding you back Mr Cameron?
International Women’s Day is not just about promoting women into positions of power, it is primarily about celebrating the contribution of women everywhere. Here is a short video celebrating Scotland’s inspirational women.