Pelicans and camels – or how I learned to stop worrying and love the quota

Re-reading some of my favourite Caitlin Moran columns in Moranthology this week, I came across her great piece about gender quotas. She uses pelicans and camels to illustrate a simple truth – that until we have proper gender parity in the groups that hold the power, women’s voices will continue to be lost or ineffective. (The original article is behind a paywall at The Times I’m afraid, unless you’ve got the book.)

As she says: “When women are in a minority in any situation, they feel as understandably odd and stressed as two pelicans in a camel enclosure. And the camels can’t help but look at the pelican beaks oddly and go off and do “camel things” in the corner, while the pelicans feel awkward and alone and go on a weird diet, out of self-loathing.”

At the time of reading this back in December 2011, I remember laughing out loud (as normal when reading Caitlin Moran’s column), but thinking that life is not a zoo enclosure and that the animals are not chosen on merit, or asked to contribute more than their presence.

But then I read some more. Specifically, a colleague’s MA dissertation on the glass ceiling, which interviewed 12 successful women in PR to find out more about how they had made it to the very top. And one of the fascinating insights was that even though many of the women recognised that the culture and structure of the companies they worked in were male dominated, there was a real reluctance to challenge this state of affairs, even though they had now reached a position where they had a certain amount of influence. Many of the women also denied that there was a glass ceiling in their profession, despite citing many examples of behaviours and experiences that seemed to confirm its presence.

Reading Brenda Wrigley’s research into the same phenomenon was also an eye-opener. Interviewing 27 women in senior roles in PR, she also found this denial of the glass ceiling’s existence. Many of the women blamed themselves for not progressing further or quicker for a variety of reasons, rather than looking at their working environment.

Both studies found that when asked how they had made it to the top of their profession, the women essentially described behaving in a more male way, to fit in with their environment – becoming ‘one of the boys’. Similarly, a Catalyst study from 2001 reports women ‘adapting their working style to one male managers are comfortable with’. But we know that many women simply don’t reach the top of their professions, on these or any other terms. Brenda Wrigley also references a 1998 Catalyst study of why women leave the corporate world to become entrepreneurs. 47 per cent report their contributions not being recognised or valued. 34 per cent felt that women were not taken seriously. And 29 per cent felt isolated as one of few women or minorities.

This research seems to show that despite more women making it to the top these days, the world of work is not making women welcome. It’s still a difficult place to be a pelican.

So I started thinking – if those women who are at the top are isolated, and their contributions are not being heard, then is their presence actually making any difference? Is their reluctance to try to change the structures around them a reflection of their feeling relatively powerless, despite being in positions of power?

The New York Times recently reported on a study into women’s roles in political decision making, that showed that women’s voices don’t actually start to influence debates until they are at parity with the men’s.

Some fascinating statistics emerge from that study. For example, when women constituted 20 per cent of a decision-making body that operates by majority rule, the average woman took up only about 60 per cent of the floor time used by the average man. She was also more likely to be interrupted and treated with hostility, making for a more aggressive discourse overall.

But even more compelling was this – that when women make up 60 per cent or more of the body, the women are not interrupted as much, and start to influence the men’s rhetoric. They “speak more and voice the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, children and families — and men listen”. In this study, the decisions made by these bodies took these needs into account and made kinder, more charitable decisions. And this is not at the expense of men, who did not speak up less than they had before.

Viviane Reding, Europe’s Justice Commissioner, is vocal on the subject of legally binding quotas. Her proposal to the European Commission, coming up again on Wednesday (and due to be attacked by our own women and equalities minister), originally called for mandatory 40% quotas in the boardroom, and is supported by impact assessments and some solid economic reasoning. It’s worth having a trawl through the whole pack, even though the proposals have now been watered down, but here’s a headline fact – a 2009 McKinsey study found that there was a 41% higher return on equity for companies with the highest share of women on their boards, compared to companies with no women on their boards.

If we compare the experience of the women in those first two studies – who have reached the top of their profession, but do not report feeling able to change the structures around them in a significant way – with the findings of the study in the New York Times, it feels to me like there’s a tipping point that needs to be reached in terms of female representation.

UK companies, and our own minister for equalities and women, tell us that we don’t need a quota.  That great strides are already being made voluntarily, and there are articles in the papers full of pictures of women who have made it to the top illustrating how much things have improved already. Public relations scholar L. A. Grunig referred to this phenomenon of spotlighting token women as compensatory feminism  – a way of distracting attention from the fact that progress is still distressingly slow.  Lord Davies of Abersoch’s 2011 report – Women on Boards – highlights that at the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK. That’s just not fast enough. Especially when you consider that it’s possible that companies with equal numbers of women on the boards make better decisions.  More profitable decisions, but also more human decisions. Possibly more ethical decisions.

So maybe, if there was a compulsory quota, and if Amazon, Google and Starbucks had more women on their boards, they would be paying more corporation tax in the UK. Just a thought.

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