The Female Touch

In her week at the helm this summer, deputy leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman got into deep water when she spoke up about the power imbalance between men and women that still exists in this country.

The level of vitriol heaped on Ms Harman by elements of the press and fellow politicians, who ought to know better, suggests that she has tapped a seam that is very nasty indeed. So what did Ms Harman say that was so provocative?

She said there needs to be a mix of men and women on the top teams. She commented that if it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers then maybe we wouldn’t be in such a mess. And she went on to underline her premise that mixed leadership teams make better decisions by saying that, as women make up half the workforce in banking and insurance, why shouldn’t they be represented on boards? She also wants a review of the rape laws to discover why only 6.5 per cent of court cases end in conviction.

This all sounds entirely reasonable to me - so why the furore? Speaking up about the clear unfairness that exists in our society gets you labelled - the term ‘feminist’ is a dirty word for many. Somehow it gets translated as ‘man-hater’, although for the majority of women who count themselves as feminists in thought and deed if not word, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact that misandry is not a well-known term but misogyny is, speaks volumes.

The facts are clear: 51 per cent of the UK population is female, but positions of power and wealth are far from split 50/50. Women earn less then men (those in full-time work earn 17 per cent less, those in part-time work earn 40 per cent less). Before the Labour Party created all-women shortlists for potential MPs there were very few women in Parliament - now almost one-third of Labour MPs are female. The Conservatives, who didn’t take such radical action, have only 18 women MPs.

We live in a deeply paternalistic society and the only way to achieve real change is by taking some radical steps. In addition to an equity argument, there is always the business case to fall back on - in Norway when the government legislated that women take 40 per cent of seats on corporate boards, business growth increased.

So what should we do to get our own house in order? The interesting facts about social housing are that we have a high percentage of women in the workforce (69 per cent) and a high percentage of our residents and applicants are households headed by women (61 per cent) and yet this isn’t reflected in the make-up of our senior management and boards.

Some years ago, I was involved in a Housing Corporation/National Housing Federation initiative to get more women to the top. I remember Baroness Brenda Dean, then chair of the Housing Corporation, speaking at an NHF chief executives’ conference about a target to increase the number of female chief executives of housing associations to 50 per cent by 2010. Her speech went down like a lead balloon and I can recall many a chief executive feeling personally attacked and muttering about how they refused to apologise for being ‘white and male’.

This sort of reaction to the issue is extremely unhelpful but perhaps not surprising. Only 16 per cent of the largest housing associations had female chief executives, according to a 2008 Inside Housing survey. We are certainly not on target for 50 per cent next year.

Emotion aside

What I do know, is that without the support of male chairs and chief executives, this is a lost cause. I wouldn’t be in my current position without some great male bosses.

So let’s try to be logical, fair and unemotional about all this. Let us see if we can reach the same conclusion as the Confederation of British Industry, which has committed itself to greater diversity in the boardroom and to dealing with ‘the shocking lack of women in top positions in British business’. The CBI has come to the entirely rational conclusion that if you stuff your top team with the same type of person, you will end up with dangerous blind spots and an unhealthy lack of challenge. A mixed team is more likely to produce constructive dissent and a variety of views.

Those of us in leadership positions need to be far more fearful of the ‘Emperor’s new clothes syndrome’ - people telling us what they think we want to hear - rather than people who will help us to think differently, understand other perspectives and therefore take much better decisions.

Our current difficult economic and social environment does not mean that diversity in the top team should be a ‘back burner’ issue, for it is of major importance in ensuring good governance and leadership within an organisation. Equality should be of fundamental importance to us all.

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