Jane Bradley: Quotas don’t add up to successful women

Women for Independence has gone from strength to strength. Picture: John Devlin
Women for Independence has gone from strength to strength. Picture: John Devlin
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It’s the year of the politically engaged woman. And about time too. The pro-indy grass-roots group Women for Independence has gone from strength to strength – with more than 1,000 people signing up to its post-referendum conference. Meanwhile, a cross-referendum alliance of Scottish Labour star Kezia Dugdale and the Greens’ Alison Johnstone has formed Women 50:50 – a bid to improve female representation in public life. They want to see 50 per cent female quotas brought in at the Scottish Parliament, in councils and on public boards.

Separate campaigns worldwide have called for companies to implement quotas to increase the number of females in senior roles.

But while I am with them in spirit – cut me open and I bleed feminism – I am not sure this is the way to go.

I recently debated the issue with a couple of male colleagues – both pro-quota. They pointed to our own office in the Scottish Parliament, which houses political journalists from the regional and national press. Out of 20 or so at Holyrood, only two, including me, are female. They suggested a quota could sort out the problem.

Was it, they feared, because the male-dominated environment deters females putting themselves forward for political reporting jobs?

I admit, the first time I ventured on to the political corridor, I was slightly terrified. My heels clicked on the hard wooden floor, meaning every male journalist sitting in their glass-fronted offices looked up and baulked at the unusual sight of a WOMAN walking past. But I still maintain there are very few ambitious females in any industry who would let a few socially awkward men put them off applying for their ideal job.

I’m not denying many women have faced some form of sexism over their career.

On a visit to London head office after being appointed Scottish business editor of a Sunday broadsheet aged 29, the first words from a misogynistic senior member of staff were: “God. And how OLD are you, exactly?”

I’m not sure anyone – apart from perhaps Alex Salmond, who came under fire for patronising a 20-something junior national newspaper reporter by offering him a packet of sweeties in a press conference during the referendum campaign – would have reacted like that to a young male journalist.

A female head of a financial services company told me key clients gave her their tea and coffee order on arriving at a meeting – the sole aim of which was to introduce her to them as the incoming chief executive. She made the tea and watched as their mouths fell open.

So, yes, there is still sexism in many arenas. And that needs stamped out.

I’m just not sure that giving people the ammunition that a woman was appointed to a key role, not because she was the best person for the job but because she won out to a male rival due to a quota, is the best way of promoting ourselves as equal individuals.

Indeed, there are often legitimate reasons why some women may choose not to apply for more ambitious roles. Many women – and some men – with children choose to work part-time for a while, effectively ruling us out of certain senior positions over that time. Others shy from jobs which require longer hours and more travel. That nibbles away at the numbers of women looking to enter high-level roles.

Shared maternity/paternity leave is to come in next year, which will help equalise things, but the take-up of the existing parental leave system suggests more women than men will still choose to take time off.

Of course, in Holyrood – where only a third of MSPs are female – there is the issue of representation. Whatever the reason that women are not getting – or applying for – the top political jobs, the electorate does need to be represented. As do people from ethnic minorities, gay people, people with disabilities and so on.

But the reasons given for the imbalance make no sense. We are about to enter an era where the three main political parties in Scotland have female leaders. These women – likely SNP head Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Tories’ Ruth Davidson and Labour’s Johann Lamont – have got to their positions without the help of a quota. Would they feel the same sense of achievement if there was a niggling doubt they had only been promoted because they were women?