On meritocracy and women in the boardroom

Lately, I've been hearing a lot about the number of women who hold senior positions in corporate organisations. Company magazine is celebrating #GirlBoss, The Guardian is highlighting the rise of female executives and the Government is addressing the issue with the Women on Boards document. Fantastic! Of course there is a disproportionate amount of men than women in the boardroom and this needs to be addressed. But there's one little detail I have a problem with:

The Women on Boards document states that in 2010, women made up 12.5% of the members of the top 100 corporate boards. By 2015, "FTSE 100 boards should aim for 25% female representation". 

Here's the problem with positive discrimination: Companies are pressured into meeting their targets and, therefore, are more likely to employ a female candidate. This might sound amazing, but let's think about it for a moment. In fact, let's take a look at a little scenario here.

Candidate A is applying for a promotion to an executive role. This person has several relevant qualifications and many years of experience. In their time at the company, they have shown a hard working attitude, they've achieved great results for the company and their attendance is 100%. 

Candidate B is well-qualified, but not at quite the same level. They also haven't got the same amount of experience. Although they work hard, they have made a couple of mistakes that have lost the company money, and they've been late several times in the past 2 years. 

You're the person in charge of promoting the suitable candidate. Who are you going to choose? Candidate A, right? Well here's the catch: A is a man and B is a woman... and you haven't reached your 25% quota. 

It might seem like an over simplification, but this is what happens when pressure is applied. The result is women being employed over men, for the simple reason that they are a woman. I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like equality to me.

This reminds me of the recent BBC policy: That every comedy panel show must have at least one woman. There are proportionately more men in comedy than women. Again, this is something we need to address but the answer is not sticking in a token woman on every panel. Since there are far fewer successful female comedians than male, we end up with one of two situations: Either the same women appear on show after show after show or producers cast mediocre talent based on the fact that they have breasts.

What we're ending up with is a boardroom full of women who are not the best for the job, and panel shows filled with comedians who aren't the best quality. So now we've got reinforcement of the (mistaken) beliefs that women can't run companies and women aren't funny. 

Of course, we need to address these issues. We need equality. We need to eliminate the perceptions that men are automatically better for the job. We cannot ignore amazing women in favour for a man who isn't the best choice. But this is not going to happen by given women a fastpass to the top based on their ovaries. I don't know about you, but I'd rather have a few, highly successful women at the top, than several mediocre ones. Surely that's sending out a better message? Imagine that every woman in the boardroom, or every woman on TV, was the best person for the job and incredibly successful in their work. Wouldn't that show that women can achieve?

The problem is, hiring women over men is not equality. True equality is quite simple: Choose the person most suited for the role. I don't care if they're male, female or martian. Gender should not come into the issue at all.

As an aside, can we take a while to talk about the number of women who hold senior positions in caring and nurturing roles? 67% of headteachers and deputy headteachers are female. 60% of women are human resources managers. 47% of GPs are female, and that's only 3% away from "true equality". But I guess these jobs don't count. Is that because they're "women's jobs"?

Allow me to reiterate: I don't think it's ok that so few women hold top corporate roles. However, I cannot see that quotas are the way forward in achieving equality. 

It boils down to, as Jennifer Saunders said when hosting a BBC panel show, "Hello and welcome to Have I Got News For You. I'm The Woman". Isn't that a bit patronising? To me, that says "It doesn't matter about your body of work, it doesn't matter about your achievements. You have a womb, so we're hiring you because we have to". 

Maybe it's just me, but I want to be hired based on my merits, rather than my lack of Y chromosomes.


  1. I totally agree its great if a woman gets an important jobb but only if she deserved it! I would hate to get an important job and find out I was only choosen because I have tits I would want it because I am the best for the job x

    1. I find it patronising. It's almost like the consolation prize. "Well, Tim was better but we know you women need jobs too". Having been on the other end of positive discrimination (in primary teaching, male applicants are favoured over female since there's fewer of them), I know how disheartening it is to be turned down because of your gender, even though you're the more suitable.

  2. I completely agree. I get feminism and I understand what people fight for but at the same time it has to be realistic. If you're rubbish at the job, you don't get the job. It just happens that man have had those kind of jobs because they are man jobs and women have women jobs for years and years and it's just the beginning of change. We can't force it, but we can encourage it but not at the expense of a quality worker for the job.
    It's a little funny that we don't have the same quotas for the 'woman jobs'.

    1. Exactly! Funnily enough, in teaching there is a lot of talk about getting more men into the job. When I was applying for a job, there'd be that horrible sinking feeling to see a man at the interview because you know he'd be offered it to make up the male quota.

      Ultimately, the best person for the job needs to be given the job. Whether they're a man or a woman, it shouldn't matter.

  3. A good post, but it is a little disheartening that you don't think there aren't qualified women in the corporate world. Granted, there are more men in office type of jobs out there. I do see situations happening where men don't pick the most qualified woman, but someone who will follow their agenda. I think it's more about the work culture in business. Even if a woman gets a job, is she not allowed to prove herself? She might not be as qualified, but she might be willing to work hard and learn. They might not have earned the job based solely on her background but at least it's a foot in the door for her and for women all around. She should at least get the chance. I know this makes some people cringe, but we should support other ladies because it's a man's world out there!

    1. Goodness, Angela, I think you may have misunderstood me a little. Of course there are qualified women in the corporate world, and plenty of them! My argument is that those qualified women should get the job because they are better than the male applicants, not just because they are a woman and the company needs to meet their target. In the instance that a male is more qualified, he should get the job because of that. I just believe that people should be employed on their merits, not their gender.

      As for a woman not being as qualified but being able to work hard and learn: Imagine there are two female candidates. One is more qualified and more suitable for the job than the other. Of course, the more qualified one should be offered the job. That shouldn't change if one of the applicants is male.

  4. Such a fantastic post, I'm a firm believer that jobs should be allocated based on suitability. It's going to be difficult to have full equality but I think we're slowly starting to get there. I want to be able to get a job because I am qualified and able to perform well in that position, not because I have an extra X chromosome. x

    Charlotte / coloursandcarousels

    1. The thing is, full equality is giving somebody the job based on their merits. Equality is not giving a woman a job just because she has an F on her birth certificate.

  5. I know it's difficult with interviews etc, but I would love for names to be removed from CV's. Everyone should be given a candidate number or something instead. That way you don't know the race or gender of the person involved. You can't make things perfect but at least then those being chosen for interview would be there based on skills not on genitals.

  6. First off, I have to admit I'm a bit biased on this as I work for a business gender diversity campaign and we just did a huge piece of research on women at work and their ambitions (though I should add I'm not responding to this with my work hat on).

    I do agree that quotas don't work; that way lies resentment, from both the women that are only there because they're women and the men that got overlooked for that job. The Davies review isn't a quota - that would count as positive discrimination which is illegal in UK law - but rather encouraging companies to promote women who are qualified for the role. However, there's also an underlying issue that there aren't enough women at the level below executive jobs - lots of women on boards are non-executive directors, and often they'll be doing that role for more than one company, which skews the numbers.

    What's needed is to get more women into those senior roles below board level so there's a pool of women to recruit from when executive director jobs come up, but the issue is how to do it. There are companies doing good things on this - publishing the number of men and women at each level, using single pay structures, women's networks etc - but it is something that needs a cultural change and that's going to take a while. I also think the view that at some point women have to pick between their career and their family is a big part of it; things like flexible or part-time working, for example, are often seen as a 'mummy track' and people are dismissed as not having the ambition so they don't get the promotions or the big projects, but there has also been research from fathers and non-parents who say they want to work flexibly but aren't being offered it (though I appreciate there are jobs where that's not possible). And then there's a whole 'superwoman' image that can go along with these high-profile businesswomen, which means women often look at them and think 'I don't want that lifestyle', whereas if there were more senior women who worked flexibly or part-time or who were willing to turn around and say that actually it is difficult to juggle everything, more women might think it's not impossible to get to the top and have a life outside work.

    Sorry that was so long! Essentially it's not just 'stick a quota on it and women will get promoted' - no-one really wants that, they want qualified people who can do the job well. But a quota is a lot easier and quicker than actually changing the culture, which is what's needed to get more women into those top jobs on merit.

  7. What is with calling grown women, girls? We're women dammit

  8. I agree. The same debate is going on here in Denmark. I think that a person should be hired based of their talents and not on their gender. I would not like to be hired simply because I am a woman. Not only does it discriminates men but I think it discriminates women as well as if the only way a woman can get a senior position is through quotas.
    If we want equality we need to stop focusing on gender and instead focus on people's merits.

  9. I completely agree - the NUS have just introduced quotas and I think it's appalling. No one should lose out on jobs they're qualified to do based on their gender, male or female!
    Megan x | MeganRoisinn

  10. I'm so glad you have written about this, it needed to be said and spoken about. I completely agree with everything you said, we do need more women in boardrooms, politics, comedy etc but they shouldn't just get the job because they are a woman. If I was hired for a position because I'm a woman over my skills/talents I would be pretty damn offended by that. Brilliant post!

  11. You know my feelings on this post already but I thought I'd reiterate that you're awesome and I love you.


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