Despite decades spent talking about equality between men and women in the industry parity in numbers at senior levels remains a distant prospect. It is time to accept that quota is not a dirty word.
Norway made a start a decade ago with a law that requires public limited companies to ensure 40% of their boards are women. The law is framed so that any committee with more than nine members must have representation from at least 40% of men and 40% women.
The Norwegians gave their companies a chance to get their act together before bringing the law into force. It didn’t work.
Norway’s companies only got serious about parity between men and women when the law told them to do so. With 40% on the board, women in the main power positions – such as CEOs and chairs – increased from 3% to 12%.
Following Lord Davies’ report into the number of women on UK company boards, the situation in this country has improved. In 2011, Davies set a 25% target for board positions being filled by women in FTSE 100 companies – it currently stands at 26%.
Last year he set a revised target of 33% representation of women on all FTSE 350 boards by 2020.
The UK is beating the targets it has set itself – very slowly, and it is taking decades to achieve what Norway managed in a few years.
Institution of Engineering and Technology president Naomi Climer does not believe now is the time for quotas. She told New Civil Engineer that publishing detailed statistics about how many men and women are employed in companies and what they do should be the first step.
“Although I acknowledge that quotas work, I’m pretty nervous about them,” she says.
“From experience, when companies actually have to measure their statistics the ones that genuinely want to do something about it genuinely get a surprise when they stop and look at it and realise it’s not changing and it’s not good. It does actually motivate them to do something about it on their own. For those that couldn’t care less, there will be an element of competitive peer pressure.”
Shame, and competitive instinct in companies might force some change. But organisations can be shameless, and ultimately are motivated by profit.
That’s why only state action can do the job.
The economic impact from increased parity between men and women is uncertain.
“Whether or not diversity is profitable for companies – you find conflicting results,” Cathrine Seierstad, a lecturer at Queen Mary’s University London, who has studied the Norwegian quotas, told New Civil Engineer.
“Some research suggests that increasing the number of women on boards is highly beneficial in terms of profitability and innovation. And then you have other studies that indicate the opposite. Whether or not it is profitable to have diversity in the short term is difficult to measure.”
But economics should not be our main concern.
Equality between men and women is about social justice, and making the way our society works more human.
It could be argued that intuition and experience tells us men and women think differently – how differently, nobody really knows.
Science does not understand how the human brain works, and psychological views change by the decade – if not by the year. It is tempting to quote the latest research on the human brain to support quotas, but those studies will probably be in the bin by next year.
What we do know is that humans evolved and lived in small communities over thousands of years. Men and women undertook different roles, but did so in close cooperation.
In our contemporary societies, the division of labour forces individuals into specialised fields – whether nursing or engineering – early in life. Humans have been placed in artificial, gender segregated environments.
Artificial environments are not always bad for humans, but can create problems.
One problem is that our society often designs products that – unintentionally – only meet the needs of the 49% of the population who are men. A good example of this comes from computer technology.
“There are a few examples of apps that have been developed that forgot women. The classic one is Apple’s health app which was trumpeted as looking after your whole body health, and you can track everything about your body – and there was no menstruation tracker. It is a basic thing that women need,” said Climer.
A balance between men and women in the workplace will return humans to a state closer to how we existed before industrial society – closer to how we existed for most of our history as a species.
This is one time when a limited return to the past would not be so bad. The faster the better.
Civil engineering is missing half its collective brain. Quotas are needed to put that half back.