What if all workplaces had to be a third female?

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As a report suggests progress on closing the gender pay gap is slowing, lawyer and life peer Baroness Kennedy looks to the new shadow cabinet, where a third of members have to be female, and argues it could be an interesting blueprint for all workplaces.

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Baroness Kennedy

Men can laugh, but underneath the badinage is a continuing truth that women are still not up there in the top jobs”

End Quote Baroness Kennedy President, Women of the Year Lunch

So women will make up nearly half of Ed Miliband's shadow cabinet. I told my sons this was to foreshadow things to come.

The White House has just produced a report that says no quantum leap will be made on the issue of gender unless there is a critical mass of women in any workplace.

If we want things to change we are going to have to get tough - at least a third of the army to be women, a third of submariners and a third of the Arsenal football team.

It was the Arsenal bit that brought a narrowing of their eyes. I held their gaze with a fixed stare. This was a crucial test of the feminist mothering of sons.

"Could work. We haven't won the trophy for five years. There are no English players. But they'd have to be fit."

"Of course, they'd be fit." I said. "This is Premier League football we are talking about. Women can do it."

Arsenal's Gael Clichy, Andrey Arshavin, Henri Lansbury and Samir Nasri Would an influx of female players into Arsenal's men's first team boost women's status at work?

"Fit, Mum. Good looking. Distract the other side, Mum. It could work."

Men can laugh. But underneath the badinage is a continuing truth that, despite all the gains, women are still not up there in the top jobs; one woman in the Supreme Court, a tiny number heading FTSE companies, a third of all boards totally male, four women in a government cabinet of 23 (although Gordon Brown's first Cabinet was little better on this front - with just five women and 17 men).

It is not a great story. Last week Chambers Directory gave awards to lawyers and barely a woman got a mention. There were yards of men in penguin suits and hardly a sequinned frock to be seen.

When I became President of the Women of the Year Lunch the grumblers all asked why such an event was necessary in 2010.

"What are you thinking about, Helena. All that is old hat." Really?

Gender Pay Gap

  • South East - £8,886
  • Wales - £6,570
  • East Anglia - £9,558
  • Midlands - £10,434
  • North West - £9,107
  • North East - £8,955
  • Scotland - £9,841

Source: Chartered Management Institute survey of 43,000 managers in 200 organisations

And the naysayers are not all men on this score. Some women too think the day has gone for celebrating women's achievements, though they are usually women who live and work in the comfort zones.

I have worked too long in law to think that everything has been done on equality for women.

The prevalence of domestic violence and the failure of the justice system on rape cases are testament to continuing problems here, but the fact that women continue to suffer most human rights abuses around the world - from honour killing to genital mutilation, from stoning to forced marriage, from abortion of the girl child to sexual violence and trafficking - tells us that there is still much to done.

When I was a young woman at the Bar, there were chambers with an unofficial policy that they just did not take women - women did not have what it took to stand up in court and argue coherently or cross-examine. Our brains were not suited to the kind of logical discipline that the law required.

Helena Kennedy in 1992 As a young barrister, Helena Kennedy observed sexism within the profession

Then there were those chambers that were cannier, whose leaders said: "Women? We are not against women. We've got one." Those were the days.

Women are now half the intake in most university courses, including law. They appear to be everywhere.

Yet women still do not follow through into the senior jobs. We keep being told it is just a matter of time and that evolution will solve the problem, as though, like fish growing feet, women will eventually develop into the kind of person who can wield power.

In most institutions, women have reached a plateau at around 18% in senior roles from the financial sector to the judiciary.

The interesting question now is why we are stuck. Usually it is a combination of factors around the inability of institutions to adapt and become more flexible to accommodate women's lives but it is also about the culture of organisations, exclusive networks which work to the disadvantage of women, and the failure of leading men to bring talented women on.

I always remember a woman friend, who was a Conservative politician, very astutely noticing that men did not "talk up" young women in the way they did young men.

It is partly that we tend to choose as our protegees people in whom we see our younger selves. There is a self-perpetuating tendency in all institutions for this reason which leads to their replication in the old order.

Start Quote

The challenge is for men to break the old patterns in a conscious way”

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I had the good fortune of being mentored by some wonderful men who gave me opportunities and advice throughout my career but not all women have such good luck. The challenge is for men to break the old patterns in a conscious way.

The Women of the Year Lunch is an opportunity to celebrate women. Some have high profile but most do great things below the radar.

They have broken barriers and broken records, struggled against the odds and survived, created projects to improve our world and left us breathless with wonder.

What's to sneer at? Measuring achievement is a way of taking stock, paying tribute and sending out signals to all women that women are continuing to move on.

We have to keep doing that - out and proud of the contribution women make. And there is nothing po-faced about this event. Boy, do we laugh. But without the boys.

Below is a selection of your comments

It depends in what respect this is referring to. Sometimes it is not practical to employ women for certain jobs and vice versa. There are huge gender differences where I work, for example, our finance department is 90% female whereas not a single woman works in my department (you could call it the computer geek department) because it's a technical role involving computer languages. We did employ a woman recently but to put it shortly, she failed miserably at the job, stayed for 2 weeks then went off sick and was never to be seen again.

DC, Manchester

Provided employers choose the right person for the job regardless of sex there will no longer be any problem. Forcing employers to choose the wrong person for the job because of sex will of course cause more problems than it solves. We should focus on the removing prejudice, not creating a different, Governmnet enforced one.

Simon Densley, London

I spent most of last year interviewing and taking part in assessment centres and can honestly say the sex that I felt was the most competition to me were females. Women seemed to be more competitive, and also had an under-dog quality, almost daring interviewers to doubt or dismiss them. I experienced this all year, in lots of different locations for a wide variety of jobs. It may be unequal now, and the scales will take time to tip appropriately... but watching female graduates, I feel more are credible candidates than the males. I would rather an assessment of males any day of the week, because in my own experience, women are now, on average better.

Ruairi, London

Arsenal is a football club, it is more than just a team. There are opportunities for women to work throughtout the club, in the financial, marketing and administrative functions to name but three. I agree with the majority of the article but we have to accept that there are some jobs women cannot do and this is one of them. Women are nowhere near on a level football pitch with men.

Kathryn, Newcastle

I have come up through male dominated industries and got sick to the back teeth of being wheeled out as the token female. However even now that I am established in my career I find that I loose out to men because I am not able or prepared to sacrifice everything for my job. I am not prepared to work 14-hour days every day and travel four hours, so I don't get the breadth and depth of experience, so I will never be top of the list for the top jobs. Not really an issue for me personally as I think having a home life makes me a happier and more balanced person. But may explain some of the lack of women in top jobs?

Jan, Bedfordshire

I work in a field (General Practice) which has moved smoothly from 95% male to under 50% in 25 years without any affirmative action / reverse discrimination. As a male GP, I have never once heard any negative attitude expressed about our female colleagues. I would oppose any compulsory quotas for women or any other group, where persons could later be accused of being employed simply to tick a box.

Max Patrick, Middlesbrough

What's the percentage of women holding senior management posts at the BBC? I bet it's less than 30%.

James Styles, Whitstable

What about jobs that are female dominated? Do you propose to insist that at least a third of all nursery teachers are men? Should a third of all nurses be men? On the flip side, would you insist that a third of all builders need to be women? People like Baroness Kennedy are extremely dangerous with their statistics-defined utopias. I am all in favour of women's equality, absolutely 100%, but the way to achieve it is not through arbitrary positive discrimination. The best method is education, not meddling, intrusive central government - not that Baroness Kennedy, as a New Labour relic, would necessarily agree with that

Al, Chheltenham

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