Baroness Kingsmill: Why is it so difficult for British women to get to the top?

While we've made some progress since the 1980s, tougher action is needed to address inequality between the sexes, says Denise Kingsmill.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 Nov 2012

For those of us bringing the first sexual harassment cases in the early 1980s, the conspiracy of silence that surrounded the horrible, exploitative behaviour of the late Jimmy Savile is particularly sickening. So too is the way in which so many showbiz and media has-beens seek to extract a morsel of self-serving publicity by claiming to have known all about it at the time. They didn't speak up, they claim, because 'no one would have believed them', or 'times were different then'.

Do they not realise that they were colluding in the repellent behaviour by remaining silent? That they were enabling the abuser by failing to express anger or disapproval? Some of them, unafraid to be loud-mouthed in other contexts, should have known better and used their 'celebrity' to expose him and protect the vulnerable.

Fortunately, some people did speak up against harassment at the time, if not about Savile. Brave victims brought legal actions, the few lawyers working in this field brought test cases and some supportive journalists wrote insightfully about the issue.

Change was incremental and hard won but gradually the atmosphere changed. Employers, judges and industrial tribunal chairmen began to understand that such bullying and abusive behaviour could not be tolerated. It is a rare workplace today that does not have a disciplinary code covering bullying and sexual harassment, treating it as gross misconduct. This does not mean that such conduct does not still take place but no one is under any illusion any more that it is anything other than utterly reprehensible.

Some things, however, have not changed in the office since the 1980s. Despite more than 30 years of campaigning and numerous reports, the gap between men and women's pay persists and by some calculations may even have widened for older women. Women are still rare in leadership positions in business and in politics. With Marjorie Scardino about to give up her role as chief executive of Pearson, there will be only three women leading our major companies. Interestingly and inexplicably, to me at least, of the four women CEOs in the UK FTSE100, three are American. What is it about the business environment in the UK that is so inimical to women getting to the top?

'Their continued under-representation at senior levels of management despite their superior academic and professional qualifications is surely a terrible waste of a national resource and of the investment which has been made in women's education.' I wrote these words more than a decade ago in a review of women's pay and employment, commissioned by the then Labour government. Like many others who have written government reports, I have learnt that, while your arguments may be accepted, all a report can do is focus attention on an issue. Real change requires the political will to make it happen.

There has been a doubling in women's representation in the boardroom since 1999 but this isn't saying much. Nine out of 10 new board appointments still go to men. Women occupy a mere 16% of FTSE100 board seats, significantly fewer than Lord Davies of Abersoch's voluntary target of 25%, set out in his recent report. More substantial change may be expected from the robust tactics of EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. After the voluntary approach that she initially adopted also failed to make any real difference, tough legislation has been prepared. Commissioner Reding has recognised that only sanctions for non-compliance will bring about the change that all accept is desirable but few have voluntarily undertaken.

The proposal requires companies with more than 250 employees or revenues of more than EUR50m to report annually on the gender make-up of their boards. Those that do not make the required changes to their boards' gender balance could face financial penalties or be barred from bidding on public contracts. The proposals have met with resistance from nine of the 27 member states, including, predictably, from the Coalition, which, while piously acknowledging the unacceptability of 'the myriad barriers women encounter throughout their career', is unwilling to do anything effective.

The argument for doing nothing is that change will happen naturally, voluntarily, when women become tougher and pushier at work, hardening their attitude to their children and family, and in effect becoming more like men. But there are more enlightened organisations that understand it is the workplace itself that must change so that work becomes 'de-gendered' to enable men and women to spend time with their children without sacrificing their careers. It is no coincidence that it is American women in the tech industries of Silicon Valley such as Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo or Katie Stanton at Twitter who are leading this change.

I have long argued that diversity is an enabler of innovation and entrepreneurship. We need more women at the top to clear the path for those coming up from below so that the pipeline of ambitious, able women doesn't get cut off before they can fulfil their potential.

We must loosen the stranglehold of outdated attitudes to gender and work. In the UK, in particular, where leadership positions in business and politics are held predominantly by men educated in single-sex institutions, it is not going to happen anytime soon without powerful legislative underpinning. We need powerful women leaders like Julia Gillard, Australia's feisty PM, to speak up loud and clear against sexism, misogyny and discrimination.

Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on

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