14 July 2015

In praise of women on top


I’ve just finished reading a book called Jack Glass, by the wonderful British science fiction writer Adam Roberts. In its futuristic setting, women have become the dominant sex across the solar system. They run everything. They are smarter, they are deadly and they play horrendously dirty. The common term used in conversation when referring to a generic person is ‘she’ rather than ‘he’. The most oft-repeated oath is ‘good goddess’.

Speaking as a man, it may be that this would take things a little too far. But still, if one were not a man one could understand that such a state of affairs might appeal, given the long and tortured history of gender relations.

By any sensible measure, we have been ridiculously slow at establishing equality between the sexes. If there are a lot of angry women out there, who can blame them? Last week, I was verbally and almost physically cuffed around the ear by a female friend for suggesting things have suddenly started to get much better, much faster. Perhaps I’m wrong – there certainly remains a great deal of misogyny and discrimination out there, as a brief glance at social media will remind you. No one would deny there are still massive inequalities.

Nevertheless, and at the risk of a more widespread cuffing, I can’t help but feel that there is something of a sea change going on. Perhaps I notice it more living in Scotland, where we have a towering female First Minister, an outstanding female leader of the Conservatives and are likely soon to have a female leader of the Labour Party. In Leslie Evans, the Scottish government has its first female Permanent Secretary. The health secretary is a woman. The education secretary is a woman. The Cabinet is gender balanced.

But there are signs that we may be approaching an inflection point south of the border, too. The General Secretary of the TUC is a woman. Oxford University recently appointed its first female vice-chancellor in its 800-year history. Theresa May is arguably the most competent Home Secretary of the modern era and may well be our next Prime Minister. Labour can choose between one of two women for its new leader, if it so wishes.

Zanny Minton Beddoes edits the Economist. Even the Guardian is catching up, with the impressive Kath Viner now in the top job. Camilla Cavendish, one of the finest columnists in British newspapers, has gone to run the policy unit at No 10. Sharon White reigns at Ofcom.

Who doubts these high achievers are there on merit? And success breeds success. There is now something of a race in many areas of life to put women into the top jobs, to not appear left behind. It is becoming a cultural imperative, a sign of modernity, a badge of liberal consciousness. I’ve never been in favour of quotas, and have always felt that we could reach a critical mass without them. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but it does feel to me like this is starting to happen. Why, these days, would a young girl think she couldn’t run a government, or a political party, or a large business? It is their lived experience that women do these things. They are perfectly reasonable aspirations. It is normal for women to lead.

This changing of the guard at the top is all very well and will surely, in time, have an impact further down the chain. But why not use the momentum of the moment to give gender equality a great big shove in the right direction – to improve the lot of those who lead less elevated lives?

For this reason I find myself agreeing with David Cameron’s latest raid on the Labour policy store. The Prime Minister wants to force large firms to disclose data on the gender pay gap among staff, which he says will pressure them into improving women’s wages. He has vowed to eliminate the gap, which the ONS last year said was at its narrowest since records began, ‘within a generation’. The government also announced a target of getting women into at least a quarter of boardroom seats at Britain’s biggest firms by 2015 had been met.

Good. Untethering human capital in this way, ensuring that the very best get to the very top, regardless of gender, can only be good for our prosperity, our national culture and our cohesiveness as a society. Capitalism is the language of true meritocracy. It is about locating talent and removing any barriers to success. Good goddess, let’s get on with it.

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.