Why having more women in the Cabinet matters

Rowena Ironside of Women on Boards UK writes on the implications of the recent Cabinet reshuffle.

The July 2014 government reshuffle, which was fêted for increasing the number of women in the Cabinet, has taken the percentage of women in the top decision-making body in politics to 23%. Still a long way from equal participation, but the fact that the Prime Minister was under pressure to think about increasing the gender diversity of his Cabinet is good news for society and the economy.

So why is it important that there are more women at the “top table” of politics?

Where capital is allocated

The Cabinet, and the boardroom, is where the ultimate decisions are taken and capital is allocated. Did you know that female-only sports attract only 5% cent of sports funding in the UK, whilst male-only sports attract 40%, even though women are matching or outdoing men in the medal counts in international competitions? Or that only 5 per cent of early-stage investment capital goes to female entrepreneurs, even though men and women start businesses at a similar rate? Only with more female voices at the top will these misallocations of capital start to be righted.

Culture and ethics

The “top table” also sets the tone for organisational culture and ethics. Many of our current organisations were designed by men for men, in the days when women were excluded from much of the workforce. With a wife at home, these organisational designers of the past had no need for flexible working or childcare facilities. In 2014, with so few women at the top challenging stereotypes and pointing out the things that don’t work well for them, organisations and politics are lacking both the impetus to change and the insights needed to design a culture that works for men and women.

There is considerable research that shows that organisations led by diverse boards, including at least three women, outperform their peer group. Diversity reduces the risk of succumbing to group-think, and the related pressure to “not rock the boat”. And the increased challenge that accompanies diverse ways of viewing the world is our best defence against some of the shocking lapses of ethics that have characterised recent scandals across various sectors of business and politics.

The need for role models

Finally, there is the need for female role models. Young people frequently decide what they want to do with their lives when they see someone or something that inspires them and captures their imagination. We need more women at the top of politics to inspire and excite girls and young women about what it means to be in a position of ultimate responsibility and play an active part in changing the world. When asked if she minds being a “token woman”, Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, responded that she sees herself as a “beacon” not a “token”. We need a lot more beacons for ambitious young women to follow.

It is now almost 40 years since the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) was passed, and over 80 since women got the right to vote equally with men, yet women are still all too often missing from positions of power in politics in the UK. The Sex and Power 2013 Report (from the Counting Women In coalition) states that, at the current rate of progress, a child born today will be drawing her pension before she has any chance of being equally represented in the Parliament of her country. Women on Boards believes that in Parliament and the boardroom, equal representation is an essential underpinning of both equality and a strong UK economy.

*Rowena Ironside is Executive Chair of Women on Boards UK.

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