Rather than boardroom quotas and shortlists, women should be speaking out about the millions of low-paid females propping up the service economy
Feminist cries for action have seen a resurgence of late, notably in calls for quotas on company boards. Large numbers of very successful women feel that life is profoundly sexist and unfair. Feminism has always and inevitably been driven by the educated and well-connected, but today’s feminists are also obsessed with their own elite, metropolitan lives. This is deeply depressing. It is also having a pernicious effect on politicians and policy-making.
Take the 30% Club – the campaign for at least 30% of board members in large public companies to be female. This has attracted huge publicity and traction. Top women campaign for it, politicians line up to sing the importance of such “diversity”. It is received wisdom that this policy is good for women in general, and important to them – and also good for the benighted companies themselves.
This is simplistic, and it is nonsense. A number of countries have introduced quotas for large public companies; but only one, to date, has enacted major sanctions for miscreants, and has a good many years’ experience with quotas. That is Norway, where 40% representation is required and enforced.
And the result? The policy has done nothing whatsoever for the female labour market generally. It has had no impact on female pay and promotion prospects in the companies concerned. It has had no positive impact on company profits either: replacing privileged men with privileged women doesn’t seem to pay any “diversity” benefits. What Norway now has is a new group of “golden skirts”: a small group of women who are very rich indeed.
As a feminist cause, boardroom quotas ought to be a bust. In fact, they are of a piece with much of the modern feminist media: a combination of elite self-interest and preoccupation with imagery. The coalition government’s most recent reshuffle seems to have been driven overwhelmingly by a desire to get more women on the front benches in prime photographic position. And one has some sympathy, given the constant criticism of any government which doesn’t focus on its female numbers.
Politicial parties need to have members from a wide variety of backgrounds if they are to understand and reflect their nation’s concerns. But that is a very different thing from a relentless focus on female numbers. All female shortlists for parliament are another favourite. But why should it be so good for women, or indeed society, to give seats to women who are mostly middle class and Oxbridge educated at the expense of middle-class and mostly Oxbridge men? It isn’t even a vote winner. There is no evidence whatsoever that women ever vote for a candidate simply because of her gender.
The past half-century has been amazing for highly educated women. For them, professional success is the new normality. True, only a small number of FTSE 100 companies have female chief executives. But in the rich countries’ club of the OECD, half of the well-paid professional and managerial “class 1” jobs are now held by women. And women are a growing majority of university students.
It is a victory over historic discrimination. But it also means that the female elite is increasingly different from other women. Class trumps gender. And inequality among women is rising much faster than inequality among men.
That is partly because successful women started from behind. When many careers were barred to women, their earnings were more equal. As doors opened, some women’s earnings pulled away. But there is another reason too. Modern elites depend on cheap labour. Elites always have done, and this hasn’t changed just because the elites are now co-ed. Once, successful men were catered for by female servants, and by their full-time wives. Those wives are now out there carving their own careers. But the female servants are still very much in place. Some of them are inside the home, but many are outside.
Today, we employ huge numbers of nannies and cleaners. We also employ millions and millions of nursery assistants, care assistants, dishwashers and housekeepers – armies of women doing traditional female tasks. Nurseries and care homes are big sectors, and we outsource most of what we once did in kitchens at home: fewer and fewer meals are prepared at home. Workers in these sectors are low-paid. They are part of the 24/7 service economy which underpins professional lives. They are also overwhelmingly female. “Sisterhood” is dead. Different women have very different lives, and interests.
But I wish that feminist voices spent more time speaking about the millions of low-paid female employees on whom elite lives depend, and less about boardrooms and Westminster. And that as the general election approaches, politicians seeking women’s votes would pay more attention to all women’s lives, and not just the view from the female summit.
Source: the Guardian