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Quotas aren't everything - but they are a start

WHEN German parliamentarian Michael Fuchs objected to his country's introduction of a 30% quota for women on company boards, he likened it to having to "swallow a toad".

Last week, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon proposed that the SNP, if given responsibility for equalities, would introduce a rather similar toad to the corporate wilds of Scotland. They would, she said, take "action, backed by legislation if necessary, to ensure that a clear target - I would argue at least 40% - of places on boards were occupied by women". And, of course, right on cue, there were plenty of business leaders, some of them women, clamouring to say what a repellent toad that was: or, as they put it, "ridiculous" and "ludicrous". Ultimo bra entrepreneur Michelle Mone declared that she would challenge it "all the way to the European courts".

The world is changing, but not at any great speed. Many of the predictions around equality in the workplace present a bleak picture of our progress. Only a couple of years ago, the Chartered Management Institute estimated it would be another 98 years before women executives achieved equal pay. The Centre for Women and Democracy calculated 150 years before we see 50:50 parity of men and women on local councils.

Last year, the European Union's Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, the woman behind the EU boardroom quota legislation, said that, at the current rate, it would take more than 40 years for women to hold 40% of board positions in publicly-listed companies in Europe.

In a culture that aspires to notions of equality for all, that progress seems grindingly slow. We in the UK, are inching in the right direction. The country is set to hit its 25% target for women on boards of FTSE 100 companies - but that is still 25% away from actual equality. Reports at the end of last year showed that here in Scotland only one-fifth of boards of public bodies were not dominated by men. This leaves the UK straggling behind Norway, which paved the way when in 2008 it introduced a 40% women quota for boards of publicly-listed companies.

Quotas and positive discrimination have long been dirty words. They were back in the days of "Blair's babes" and the Scottish Labour Party's twinning strategy for the 1999 Holyrood election - and still are now. Indeed, even many proponents of quotas actually see them as a bit of a toad. Reding has said:" I don't like quotas, but I love what they do." Others are learning to love the toad. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, who once found them "offensive", is now a convert and said recently: "We need targets."

What many quota advocates are hoping will happen is that the toad will bring not only equality, but also wider positive changes to corporate and working culture. Research suggests that more diversity leads to better company performance; that increasing the number of women in boardrooms results in more professionalism, less conflict, more communication.

Of course, not everyone wants equality in the boardrooms. Those who already dominate those spaces are bound to want to defend their right to be at the table in greater numbers. No equality change has happened without a fight, without resistance.

So, we hear the arguments against. We hear of the dangers of tokenism, of the tension it might place between men and women in the workplace, of the dearth of women likely to apply for particular positions. We hear of the limitations of the Norway experiment - that their quotas have created a class of women known as the "golden skirts" who act as non-executive directors on multiple companies, and of the continued rarity of executive directors. But these arguments don't seem enough.

There are also those who ponder that this is not what women want. Women don't want, these people say, to put in the long hours, to compete. But the truth is that we won't know what women really want until we live in a world where enough of them have grown up seeing women as equally visible as men in powerful positions. We won't know until we live in a world where combining family and work is less awkward - just as we won't know what men really want until enough of them have grown up seeing numerous dads pushing buggies.

Quotas alone are not, I believe, the solution - but they are part of it. We also need strategies to help women move up the "executive pipeline". We need revolutions in childcare and family-friendly hours.

The German phrase "swallow a toad" means something akin to "swallow a bitter pill". For centuries women were taught, effectively from birth, to swallow toads. Their "bitter pill" was the daily message that they were not capable, and did not have a right to power or a voice. Their swallowing of it was what made them acceptable.

We have not entirely left those times behind - though we are doing so and this current medicine is just one small part of that. Just because it doesn't taste nice now doesn't mean it won't later. Some day the corporate world may be glad it ate that toad.

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