In Norway, a 40 per cent quota for female directors was rolled out in 2003. Last year, research by Kenneth Ahern and Amy Dittmar at the University of Michigan Business School found: “The quota caused a significant drop in the stock price at the announcement of the law and a large decline in Tobin’s Q [measuring asset value] over the following years… The quota led to younger and less experienced boards, increases in leverage and acquisitions, and deterioration in operating performance, consistent with less capable boards.” So, the left-wing clarion call for gender quotas and positive discrimination is not just anti-meritocratic in principle – it is also counter-productive in practice.
But can equality of opportunity alone drive social change? No. Social policy – including better state education and welfare-to-work – is crucial to social mobility. However, too often the equality debate fails to celebrate the social progress Britain has made. According to the Hansard Society, women hold half the most senior jobs in the civil service. Women in their twenties now earn 3.6 per cent more than men. Boardroom representation remains too low, but it has doubled since 2000.
When it comes to gender pay and promotion, the key issue is no longer institutional sexism – although lurking prejudices will never be eliminated in a free society – but more the challenge for ambitious women of combining the dual roles of bread-winning and child-caring. Even there, major social shifts are underway. Studies by Aviva found that the number of stay-at-home Dads rose tenfold between 2000 and 2010. By 2011, fathers were the primary parent in one in seven homes. Those feminists who stigmatised stay-at-home mums for so many years can take little credit for that.
Today, gender is not irrelevant. But we have robust anti-discrimination laws, and most men and women want to be treated as individuals first and foremost – judged on their talent and hard-work. The rising cost of childcare is a serious issue, but it is a common challenge for most couples – not the latest pitched battle in the war of the sexes. We need practical support for working families, not social engineering.
So, the Prime Minister is right to moot tax breaks for working parents to help with childcare and home help. Likewise, making parental leave transferable (without extending it) and transferable personal income tax allowances would empower women and men by promoting choice within couples. Labour MPs squawked that the government was “out of touch”. Yet, the left’s obsession with boardroom quotas is elitist and irrelevant to the reality for most working women on low or middling incomes.
The same is true of wider positive discrimination under the Equality Act. Kat Akingbade was devastated when her boss told her she got her dream job as a TV presenter because she was black. Bravely, she spoke out: “Positive discrimination robs an individual of drive and self-motivation; it completely undermines the achievements and abilities of the hard-working and truly gifted. If employers are pressed to select candidates on the basis of race, sex or gender to diversify the workplace, they will care less about a candidate’s ability, and eventually one ‘protected characteristic’ will blur into another.” The voice of young, modern, aspirational Britons like Akingbade is poorly represented in the equality debate that rages in the cloistered confines of the Westminster village.
The latest bug-bear is the claim – echoed by various commentators on the left – that the Conservatives have a problem with female voters. The underlying assumption is itself deeply patronising and insulting to women – as if there are a cluster of issues that could seal the female vote, if only the right policy buttons were pressed. Can you imagine anyone ever saying that about the male vote? The claim is almost entirely a fabrication of Fleet Street, as some pollsters have pointed out. As David Cameron delivered his speech in Stockholm, the latest YouGov poll showed the Conservatives doing 1 per cent better with women than men – and the Labour Party faring 6 per cent worse with men than women. So, if the Conservatives have a problem with female voters, it is nothing compared to Ed Miliband’s problem with men.
Britain’s fossilised equality debate needs to be brought into the twenty-first century. Gender quotas and positive discrimination (including preferment dressed up as positive action) should be banned on principle, with more practical support to help working couples make the individual choices that suit their lives, values and priorities.
Dominic Raab is the Conservative MP for Esher & Walton.