So how do you get more women speaking at conferences, or sitting on boards, or taking leadership roles, or contributing to any other sphere where they are missing? There are different strategies for increasing the number of women or men in a particular sphere of life and one of the most controversial is introducing a quota. People are concerned that talented men will be denied opportunities while less-able women are promoted ahead of them just to make up the numbers. Norway went down the quota route in 2008 when they passed a law requiring publicly listed companies over a certain size to appoint women to 40 per cent of their non-executive board directorships. They had tried introducing that proportion as a voluntary target, but when that didn’t bring sufficient change quickly enough they made it compulsory. It caused a lot of controversy with even some who wanted more women in public life very opposed to the change.
However, one of the stories that emerged was very illuminating about how appointments are often made. Marit Hoel is the founder of the Oslo-based Centre for Corporate Diversity, which helps companies find experienced non-executive female directors. In response to the growing criticism that there weren’t enough talented and experienced women around, she called a press conference where she said nothing. She just showed photos of 100 senior, capable, talented women with summaries of their CVs. She said, ‘The pictures said it all. Experienced women are out there in quantity. The problem, as elsewhere, is that they are literally not seen. Men have their own network.’ Another female executive talked about this ‘grey men’s club’ as it’s known. ‘They meet in places where only men meet. They go hunting and fishing and drinking together. People who know people are appointed. I wish the quota hadn’t been necessary, but I’m a realist. It forces men to look beyond their magic inner circle.’
Lord Davies found something similar in his review into women on the boards of companies in 2011. According to his research, some of the biggest obstacles to women reaching the top are opaque recruitment methods with half of directors recruited through personal friendships and only 4% having a formal interview. He commented that many male chairmen were not thinking outside the box when it comes to the selection of candidates. Virigina Bottomley, the former Tory minister, is now a headhunter who has made a point of finding senior roles for women. She says, ‘individuals are inclined to look in the mirror, and appoint in their image, rather than look through the window and recognise the diversity of the work environment. A board should be an orchestra that can play a harmonious tune, not just a group of violins.’ In her experience, one of the things that is making the older men who dominate politics and business think again is the realisation that their own daughters are being disadvantaged by their practice.If a quota disrupts the status quo and forces people to think outside the box, then I think it can be a very helpful tool.
When Clive Calver was at Spring Harvest he set a quota of one female speaker in every seminar team of three, which was pretty radical for that time, and Wendy Beech-Ward was very skilled at introducing gifted female speakers while she was there. Jonny Baker advocates for a simple 50/50 split. Martin Saunders has written about how Youthwork Summit increased the number of female contributors to their event. Greenbelt is promising to be intentional about increasing the number of female contributors. One of the things I would encourage event organisers to do is to be really clear, internally, about their criteria for inviting people. These might need some interrogation – what does it mean for someone to be a ‘gifted’ speaker? Is evidence that they have spoken on a similar platform the only way to be sure they can cope with the size of the event, or is there another way? Once you’re clear about what qualifies someone to speak, you don’t need to lower your standards, you just need to look harder to find women who meet them. You need to look beyond your usual networks and dip into other people’s connections. You need to be constantly on the look out for good female communicators so you have a bigger pool to draw from. You need to take some risks and be open to different styles of speaking so that diversity is valued and modelled. But you need to be intentional about doing something different, or nothing will change.