The Glass Ceiling – are we any closer to gender equality at the highest levels of business?

Hilary Samuels 29 November 2012

Newnham College, Cambridge stands as a proud testament to the massive strides that have been made by women in education over the last century. As I stroll under its ornate Victorian gables, golden autumnal leaves crunching underfoot, I think of those who came before and wonder what they must have thought of their place and purpose in the world.

Today, the hot issue of gender is at its most controversial where the increasing influence of women in the world of work is concerned. However, despite some evidence of increased female empowerment in the pursuit of careers, women are still not reaching the highest positions in companies in any consistent way.

Cynthia Carroll’s recent resignation as chief executive of the multinational mining firm Anglo American makes her the second female FTSE 100 chief executive to resign in less than a month, leaving behind just two women to represent the female sex at the highest level of corporate management. Before her resignation, Carroll was charged with shaking up a company which has become known to many for its conservatism, outmoded thinking, and allegations of bad business practice. Now, concerned men and women will be asking what Ms. Carroll’s departure means for gender equality.

This brings up the crucial debate over the implementation of a quota system: the idea that a minimum number of women in executive positions in companies should be enforced. However, this supposedly ‘easy’ solution has not been proposed without the emergence of considerable opposition and fierce debate. In the European Commission, deliberation on a gender balance directive mandating a minimum of 40% of seats on company boards be reserved for women has been postponed amid concerns that it might ‘go too far’.

“I will not give up,” said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. “We’ve been fighting now for 100 years “. The mood in Britain, where the directive has been opposed by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, is less optimistic.

On one side, there is the argument that women supposedly need extra support in order to counteract existing discrimination, and therefore to maintain a fair proportion of women acting as the executives of major British companies. This argument is supported by statistics: the fact that just 2% of those at the highest levels of business are women highlights the need for some sort of significant change, to ensure equality in the workplace. The idea is that by enforcing the position of women in the boardroom, the potential of the female sex will be recognised leading to the destruction of old-fashioned, biased perspectives. The process will then become a self-sustaining one as women gradually become accepted at the highest levels of corporate management.

However, the quota system does not appear to be the best solution in reality. Comparisons must be drawn to the argument for affirmative action in terms of racial discrimination in the workplace and in higher education. Is it right to enforce a quota system for the benefit of racial minorities if in the process the rights of the majority group are infringed upon, and more significantly, is it right for the minority group to have easier access to positions?

This point has recently been supported most clearly by Cynthia Carroll herself, who argued “I think there is a need to have more women running companies, but you can’t … appoint women just to appoint women, just to satisfy a particular condition. The last thing you want is to have token women”. Ms. Carroll’s argument ably highlights the dangers inherent in a system obsessed with statistics.

In the wake of the recent backlash against a Europe-wide directive on mandatory quotas, some commentators have advocated a system of voluntary targets, such a those in place in Great Britain. The way the situation currently stands in British companies, however, is that women have evidently not gained true equality in the workplace.

The statistics paint a grim picture at all levels: according to data released by the Government, last year only 12.5% of board members of FTSE 100 companies were women, and at the current rate it will take over 70 years to achieve a gender balance. The Fawcett Society has revealed that a staggering 81% of last year’s unemployed workers were women. As to whether this is due to lack of a more formal and obligatory quota system, or due to cultural stereotypes that we have yet to dispel, remains an open question.

Alternative solutions to the lack of women in boardrooms tend to emphasise the gradual process of an increase in support for women in the workplace and the education of both genders to reduce any discrimination on the basis of gender, but there appears to be no short-term effective solution.

According to a report by Lord Davis for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, companies with more gender-balanced boards saw significant improvements in several areas. These include higher sales figures, a higher return on invested capital and a higher return on equity. The report contends that these figures can be accounted for by a single, intuitive fact: companies who draw their executives from a larger pool of talent, one containing men and women without discrimination, attract more talented people.

Despite Lord Davis’ determination to increase female representation at the highest level of corporate business, Cynthia Carroll is likely to be replaced by a man, as the two likely replacement candidates are both male, and female representation will be left at 2% in the highest-paid corporate positions, highlighting the way in which the fight for female equality has not yet been even nearly completed.

Hilary Samuels