Denise Kingsmill: The Tories' blind spot

If the prime minister wants to win back female voters, he will have to do a lot more to tackle inequality in the workplace, and not only in the boardroom.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 May 2013

Inspiring Women 2013

Denise Kingsmill will chair MT's Inspiring Women conference on November 27, 2013 - click here to find out more.

David Cameron has a woman problem. The polls tell him that he is losing the support of women in droves and his response is to announce that, in future, the eldest child of the monarch may succeed to the throne, even if a girl. Well, that should really do it for the female electorate ...

introducing a measure that may, potentially, improve the opportunities for one, as yet unborn, woman in what is likely to be about 50 years' time, given the longevity of the Windsors. I doubt that the more than one million unemployed women of today will rejoice.

The economically illiterate policy of rapid and savage deficit reduction pursued by the Coalition is having a disproportionately adverse effect on women and thereby on business and the wider economy. Women largely control the nation's purse strings. According to a Boston Consulting Group poll of 23,000 women in 22 countries, it is women who are behind 70% of consumer spending, deciding how their families use financial services, insurance and healthcare, as well as making or influencing the majority of household purchases.

Research shows that it is women who worry most about rising bills, the cost of university education and the decline in employment prospects for their children and are cutting down as a result. Even with Christmas approaching, retail sales are in decline, as their spending power is eroded at the fastest pace since the 1970s. If women feel poor, national consumer expenditure falls rapidly, with the resultant impact on the high street and beyond. And yet the Coalition largely ignores this fact and, having cut the entitlement to family allowance paid to mothers, has been contemplating abolishing maternity pay. No wonder they are unpopular with women.

Even in lending his support for more women on corporate boards, the prime minister manages to demonstrate his tin ear when it comes to listening to women. He recently stated that more women in the boardroom would lead to a curb on senior executive pay. Leaving aside the question of whether such an assertion is likely to encourage said executives to appoint more women, it illustrates the typical clumsiness and lack of awareness of male politicians when it comes to dealing with women's issues. The idea that women should act as a restraint on the excesses of men owes more to a 19th-century idealised view of their civilising influence than to an understanding of the role and aspirations of today's women. It also suggests that because women are paid less than men, appointing more of them would be a quick fix to the problem of soaring boardroom pay. As reported in the Financial Times and, according to the Institute of Directors and employers advisory firm Croner Reward, female directors earn salaries between 14% and 20% lower than men. Rather than address this inequality, David Cameron would prefer to exploit it.

However, at the risk of sounding a bit of a heretic on the issue of women on boards, it is, in truth, a bit of a distraction from the real issues of female inequality at work. Of course it is shameful to corporate Britain that the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards is only 14.2% and on FTSE 250 boards only 8.8%. Most corporate boards would be much improved by more diversity of gender, race and nationality, but, above all, of thought, attitude and experience.

Lord Davies' report on the subject earlier this year recommended female board representation should increase to 25% by 2015. But even if this target were to be met, it would directly affect a only few hundred women. The more pressing problem facing millions of our young women - who are doing so well at school and university, outperforming their male contemporaries in every subject and at every level - is how to widen their opportunities, increase their upward mobility at work and close the pay gap, enabling them to make a full contribution to the UK economy, as well as realising their own potential.

Rather than the quasi quotas suggested by Lord Davies, the government could introduce mandatory pay audits to tackle the entrenched pay inequalities in our economy. A universal system of high-quality childcare such the French ecoles maternelles would enable more women to participate fully in the economic recovery. Better advice and encouragement to girls early in their education to consider a wider range of career possibilities, such as engineering, science and technology, would give them the confidence to move beyond the more traditional women's jobs, which tend to be low paid.

A fundamental change in the attitude of one who thinks it acceptable to tell female colleagues 'to calm down, dear' or to label them 'frustrated' is unlikely, given the prime minister's background, age and education, but the practical politician in him can surely see the merits of policies that benefit women. Better this than tinkering around the edges of primogeniture in the monarchy.

If he is to make himself popular with women voters, he needs to tackle the more fundamental inequalities that they face every day.

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

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