What does a firm care?

The root causes of sexual inequality in the workplace must be analysed and exposed.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When the Equal Opportunities Commission issues a report entitled 'Who Runs Britain?', the answer is a foregone conclusion. It is rather like Muhammad Ali asking: 'Who's the greatest?'

And sure enough, the answer to the EOC's question is - drumroll, drumroll - men. Across swathes of public and corporate life, the proportion of men in positions of power will sober up anyone high on the idea that we've reached equality. It is still a man's world.

'Britain is the 10% club,' says Julie Mellor, chair of the Commission.

'In the police, judiciary and FTSE 100 companies, women in senior positions make up fewer than one in 10. We simply can't be complacent about the progress we've made.'

And although the picture is familiar enough, the one painted by the report is stark. Women make up 18% of MPs, 12% of council leaders, 13% of local Authority CEOs, 7% of senior police officers, 9% of big-firm directors, 6% of high court judges and 9% of national news-paper editors.

There is a heretical question to be asked here: does it matter? After all, the institutions listed above seem to be functioning OK; business is booming and women are actually happier than men.

Mellor, as you would expect, thinks it does. First - the usual argument - because it means that organisations are fishing for talent in only half the pool, but also - a more radical argument - because 'the legitimacy of decisions made by such a homogenous group has to be questioned'.

This is a warning that the right of politicians to pass laws and of judges to pass sentences is less in a world where the Y chromosome rules.

In this sense, the Welsh Assembly, which is half female, is a purer instrument of democracy than Westminster.

It may be that the glass ceiling is constructed in part by British women themselves, who consistently value the acquisition of power and status at a lower level than men. It is instruc-tive that many of the women who have made it to senior positions are from the US, a society in which women's aspirations more closely match those of their male peers.

But this explanation - which is in any case partial - is no justification. It is good to have a diverse society, in which some people are more ambitious for power than others, but it is profoundly illiberal, regressive and unjust for those differences to be based on gender.

But what can be done? The EOC's report is merely the latest in a long line of shock-horror statistical bulletins, and the arguments of campaigners are more rehearsed than Jonny Wilkinson's place-kicks. It isn't working. Eloquent exhortation is no longer doing the trick.

Scarcely a week passes without the publication of some research showing the extent of gender inequality, or of a list of top women managers/politicians/financiers/under-30s* (*delete as appropriate). The trouble is that such statistics and tables merely scratch and reflect the surface: women are behind, so let's celebrate the ones who are getting ahead. This approach to promoting equality - the PR version - needs now to be replaced with a systemic analysis and exposure of the root causes of inequality, rather than its results.

It may be the case, as Mellor suggests, that Britain is a 'society in transition' - that both men and women are adopting new aspirations for work and life. But if so, our primary institutions remain largely impervious.

It is not clear how we can channel this growing pressure into effective mechanisms that bear upon institutional life.

The heart of the matter is the treatment of the work of caring. Mellor correctly points out that recent decades have brought a privatisation of care. Raising young daughters and helping elderly dads is seen as an individual rather than a collective responsibility. Real equality, she argues, requires caring to be seen as 'an issue for the body politic'.

Care is the fulcrum upon which any significant change must turn. But we should not underestimate the scale of the task. Traditional economics and the 'American business model', as John Kay describes it, are blind to the costs and value of care. As the feminist economist Shirley Burgraff says: 'Children might as well come from cabbage patches as far as economics is concerned.'

Right now, organisations see the caring roles of their employees as an inconvenience, which they aim to keep as minor as possible. There is little sign of a shift towards genuinely flexible working, above-paltry paternity leave or subsidised childcare. And in truth, the 'business case' for a fundamental realignment of organisational priorities to include an engagement with care is often weak to non-existent - at least in terms of the short-term impact on the bottom line.

This means that organisations will have to adopt a much deeper and broader and longer-term view of their responsibilities. At present, notions of corporate responsibility are focused largely on reputation and brand-building, rather than profound institutional reform.

But a world of equal opportunities will remain a utopian dream unless the corporate social responsibility movement really gets moving.


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