Seeing Double

Jon Bright
19 October 2007

I was at a Fawcett Society round table yesterday discussing how ethnic minority women can access positions of power in Britain - part of their "Seeing Double" project. The under representation of women, and minorities, in British public institutions is a key issue for OurKingdom. Black and ethnic minority women make up 5.2% of the population of the UK - you can probably guess what % of positions of power they hold. I was there to mainly listen - and two themes came out strongly for me.

The first is that ensuring equal representation is important for two reasons. In a system of representative democracy it is intuitive that public representatives should be, well, representative of their public. But the relative exclusion of women, and especially ethnic minority women, from public life represents a loss of talent and creativity. Sitting at the Fawcett table I was reminded of another round table I had attended recently. I won't mention the name of the think tank, but in a table of 20 or so there was only one woman, everyone was white, and I was the only one under 40. How can such a table claim to think creatively if their pool of minds starts out so homogenous? Our Houses of Parliament currently suffer from a similar problem.

The second was that while the statistics about under repsentation are clear, and the case for more inclusion strong, there is confusion about how to go about it. Whilst some people were advocating more legislation, there was a general feeling of frustration with what legislation had achieved so far. There are too many stages in a woman's career (indeed, in any career) where advancement relies on a very personal decision by their manager for a culture of sexism to be legislated out of existence. So you can make discrimintation on the basis of sex illegal at the hiring stage - but what about when managers decide who to delegate work to? Who to send to a particular conference? Who represents the company at a key meeting? It is these little things that cumulatively decide a career path but seem very difficult to make laws about.

If not legislatively, how can such a culture be changed? I don't have any clear answers. But being vocal about the creativity aspect of the debate - i.e. not just a gender blind recruitment process, but a process that recognises that different sexes might have different points of view, and this is a positive thing - seems like a good place to start.
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