Andrew Wilson: Dark age of gender inequality

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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CHANCE meetings and ­casual asides can turn so many thoughts in the mind.

It’s a funny and enhancing part of the human condition. The other day I was – as one does – floating through the members’ entrance of the House of Lords. Not as a member, you will understand.

I bumped into the noble Lord Browne of Ladyton, the former UK defence ­secretary Des Browne. Despite the cut and thrust of the partisan divide, he is a man I have always found to be thoughtful, intelligent and open-minded, as well as great company. Listen to his perspective on nuclear disarmament and you will see what I mean. I was walking with a woman who is an old friend and he stopped us to report on his recent trip to Norway as chair of the European Leadership Network discussing non-proliferation and disarmament. Interesting in its own right you will agree. But it was this that struck me most:

“I met the state secretaries at the ministries of foreign affairs and defence with their advisers, the chair of the foreign relations and defence committees of the parliament and Norway’s leading brains from the think-tank community”. “OK,” you might think, “not really a surprise.” But it was the final parting sentence that counted: “Of the 16 people we met, 12 were women.”

What? Three-quarters of the people at a serious senior statesperson discussion were what? How utterly bizarre. That could never work, surely?

But of course it does because, as in so many other ways, Nordic society offers a glimpse for the rest of us of what a civilised future can and will look like for the rest of the planet no matter how anchored to the conservative habits of the past we are now.

“Hmm,” I pondered, and to be frank have been pondering ever since. The destination of civilisation, for me at least, is an inevitable world where colour, creed, gender and sexuality faze us not a jot. Talk to the kids in any diverse school and you will see it is, despite the evidence of conflict all around, the natural state of the human heart to accept difference.

I am not saying we will homogenise, far from it, but we really ought to be able to chill about difference and celebrate its richness. It is therefore amazing, is it not, that we are so far behind Norway in the most fundamental equality struggle, which is the 50:50 battle of the genders.

I thought all this in the week the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee of MPs published a report into women in the workplace. Imbalances run deep and high. The number of women in senior executive positions in British companies is actually lower now than in 2007. This is an absurdity. In the FTSE 100 list of our top-listed companies there are just 18 female directors compared with 292 males.

Now I don’t mean to rehearse here the arguments around what this means for the performance of such companies or the policies that are needed to fix it. The same is true across politics and most every other corner of our society in any event. It is one of the many symptoms of an old country resting on the laurels of old ways rather than modernising.

What strikes me most is the need for complete transparency around the phenomenon and for us to talk about it, every day. The older I get the more I realise that the behaviour and culture change such realities cry out for can only truly be successful if driven by the self-determination of the organisations, institutions and leaders involved. Any fool can construct a hundred arguments on this policy or that policy and why positive discrimination can’t possibly replace meritocracy. What Norway shows, however, is that if you seek the prize of a higher position on the scale of human advancement measures like this are amongst the most telling.

More leaders at all levels, but especially in corporate board and executive rooms and in political cabinets, should see the opportunity. This should be seen less as a hurdle to reach to tick a “right on” box or swerve a fast-ball from some government committee (and believe me it is), and more as an opportunity to demonstrate that our institution is future proofed and modern. One of the myriad lessons from the crisis years is that the old backward looking measures of performance for companies and many other organisations don’t protect you from the future. Many banks recorded record profits each year until they, well, didn’t.

When we view ourselves from the perspective of generations to come it offers a chilling but enlightening sense. Just as we wince when we consider the bus policy towards American blacks in Alabama 60 years ago, we should also look to the wincing that will follow in 60 years at some of our culture and behaviours today.

We have come a long way as a civilisation, it is true. But we have many miles to travel before we can declare our civilisation civilised. Lord Browne got me thinking about that and I haven’t stopped since. Makes the point well, does it not, that the independence of a country ­matters less than what it does with it. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW