Gender Equality in the workplace: is it just a numbers game?

Sunday 18 October, 13.10 until 13.50, Free Stage, Barbican Hot Off the Press

Over the last few weeks, the issue of gender equality has again hit the headlines. When the 2015 London film festival opened recently with the premiere of Suffragette, the movie of the movement, indeed of the moment, Meryl Streep Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan used the red carpet to make the case complain against skewed gender balance in the film industry, whether of directors or lead roles, and even complaining that film critics and bloggers are predominantly male.  One of Britain’s most senior Judges, Jonathan Sumption was quoted as saying that a rush toward gender equality in the judiciary could have “appalling consequences” for the law. Instead, he suggests that gender equality will take at least 50 years, and warns that haste could mean that men stop applying for the jobs – like in France where 85% of newly appointed judges are women – noting that “85% women is just as bad as 85% men”. Some felt that his comments were problematic, because he seemed to suggest that in aiming for equality or parity of numbers, society could actually end up disrupting the nature of the profession. For them, his pleas for patience were little more than the comments of a privileged male whose power was invested in the old boys network - and evidence suggests that although women make up 50% of new Bar entrants, only 24% are judges, and 12% QC’s. For gender equality activists, quotas are the only way to break through the institutionalised sexism that exists in many professions, which prevent women from competing on a level playing field. Sumption attributed the under-representation of women in the senior ranks of the judiciary to a “lifestyle choice” by women unwilling to tolerate long hours and poor working conditions. Inevitably, barrister Charlotte Proudman, of #Complimentgate fame, refuted this, saying “Incrementalism has failed. We need the introduction of quotas for silks and the judiciary”. 

More broadly, gender equality is a huge issue in current discourse. And Sumption’s remarks are made within the context of reports that state that companies with women at the helm perform better, and greater female representation in Parliament is sought through all women short lists in some quarters. Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has called for Holyrood to be given the power to set legally-binding quotas in a bid to tackle gender inequality in the Scotland’s Parliament and increase the number of female leaders in public life. Women-only short lists for party candidates split opinion, but are increasingly accepted as a key way to get more women elected as MPs and councillors. 

So, if statistically, women are paid less than their male counterparts for performing the same roles, and are less likely to progress up the career ladder, surely redressing this imbalance is a good thing? But what of those who question the notion that equality is just a numbers game? After all, does it matter how many women Judges or CEOs there are as long as there is an equality of opportunity? Is Jeremy Corbyn to be judged politically by how many women he has in his Cabinet, rather than his policies; especially as two of his Blairite opponents in the Labour leadership race were women? Do we patronise women by instituting quotas, when we should be concentrating on making sure that whatever the profession, the best candidate gets the job? Are gender quotas, and positive discrimination in favour of women the best way towards equality in the law, Hollywood, politics, boardrooms and elsewhere?

Nancy McDermott
writer; advisor to Park Slope Parents, NYC's most notorious parents' organization

Kaitlynn Mendes
lecturer in media and communication, University of Leicester; author, SlutWalk: feminism, activism and media

Shyama Perera
writer, broadcaster and novelist; acting director, One World Media

Rose Davis
intern, Academy of Ideas

Produced by
Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng promotions manager, Academy of Ideas; writer on politics and ideology

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Next year's festival will be packed with more debates like this one. If you would like to come, get your ticket now via our 2016 tickets page.