Let me start in my usual way, by describing the stimuli for this article and prepare you for the usual questions I am posing at the end of it.
Yesterday I read with interest findings from a BBC research into women in senior managerial positions and prepared to write about it today. But then, listening to the news this morning on Radio 4, I was distracted by three further equality related news items presented back-to-back. In fact, each would normally be worth their own article, but today have included them in one. I wonder, when was the last time four substantive issues were offered as stimuli to us writers on the same day?
The first issue relates to research being conducted by ex-Labour minister Alan Milburn, who is looking into issues of social mobility, although it could probably be better described as social immobility. He suggest the 1950s and 60s were the golden years and is calling for a “bigger drive” to open careers to young people from poorer backgrounds, stating that many of the professions are narrowing the universities from which they accept entrants to graduate training schemes. He cites journalism, medicine and the law as three particular culprit professions.
A second piece of news was taken from a moving interview with Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP. He explained that being gay and working in business in the 1960s was, for him, “a little grain of personal terror”. He acknowledges that although things have improved since his time, he know that many gay people still choose their employment based on their ability to come out. I have recently written on the impossibility for openly gay footballers. I really recommend you have a listen to this four minute radio interview.
The final topic explained how the government is contemplating brining in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons in all schools. They have indentified that girls as young as five now worry about how they look, while cosmetic surgery rates have increased by nearly 20% since 2008. Apparently, over half the population of the UK are unhappy about their looks. One recommendation from the All Party Parliamentary Group on body image was a review into whether the Equality Act 2010 should be amended to include appearance-related discrimination. This being very topical; indeed I wrote an article on it at the beginning of May suggesting the same amendment.
So this takes me back to what I was originally going to write about, women in senior management. The UK is a poor performer, languishing lowly in the EU table, though achieving better statistics than the Mediterranean countries; it is being out-performed by our northern European colleagues. Indeed, in Norway where there was a quota system for women in the boardroom, a policy which has now been withdrawn, but nevertheless it made a substantial impact. They have over 40% women on board of top listed companies, compared with the UK’s 17%. The government has asked FTSE 100 companies to achieve a 25% figure by 2015 – I think they will really struggle to realise that target.
What gratifies me is that equality issues are still making the news on a regular basis. I do not believe that any one article, interview or news story changes people’s perceptions or deep rooted unconscious biases, but the drip-drip approach of positive message will, in time make an impact. Certainly, we have come a long way in anti-discriminatory practices since our first legislation in 1970, but there is no room for complacency – there is still a long way to go.
What about your workplace: are people free to come out without the terror Lord Brown described. Do overweight people come to work knowing they are likely to be teased or derided? Would someone from an inner city estate have little chance of promotion compared to someone who has been privately educated? Are women unrepresented in senior management?
Undoubtedly, the questions still need to be asked, and unfortunately far too often the answers are still the same. So we may be able to applaud ourselves for the work we have done, but know we still have a way to go.