My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing forward today’s debate and for giving us the opportunity to celebrate International Women’s Day. It is humbling, as ever, to follow in the footsteps of such inspiring women on this important day. But in this august Chamber, which has seen debates on and the passage of many important Bills that further the cause of gender equality, it is perhaps time to recognise the limits of legislation in getting us where we need to be.
I say this on the 100th anniversary of the sex disqualification Act, which opened up the professions and universities to women. It was an essential step, but not nearly sufficient when it comes to true equality of opportunity across the gender divide. What we now see is a system where the letter of the law is gender neutral but, in practice, we are a long way from declaring victory. For a start, we cannot legislate away a sexist culture. The law protects us in extremis but not from everyday casual sexism. It happens to all of us. Only recently, as I insisted on a particular detail in a contract, my boss was asked, “How do you put up with her?” In a man, it is seen as attention to detail but in a woman, it is—what?—nagging or being bossy.
I have long argued against a narrow focus on quotas, preferring merit and persuasion, but the time has come to ask who is deciding the merit. We need to stop playing by male rules and unpick the male bias that pervades every aspect of our economy and society. The Hampton-Alexander review into improving gender balance in the FTSE leadership found that merit was coded “male”. Briefs to recruit people to senior positions are written for men. Concerns were often raised that women lacked City experience because they were less well-known on the networking circuit. Similarly, in a recent book called Invisible Women, it was found that everything from crash test dummies, to office heating settings, to medicine dosage, is all coded for men.
We now live in an age where female qualities are better understood and recognised. In the magnificently titled book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, the author highlights the bias towards confidence, and even self-absorption, as qualities. This blocks opportunities for women, and indeed for men who do not obviously exhibit those qualities.
The question is not whether male and female brains are different, but why society still insists on labelling male brains as better. My daughter, studying physics at university, was recently appalled at the treatment by male students of a top female lecturer. They repeatedly interrupted her, questioning her analysis and intelligence in a way they simply did not do with male professors. This is not an isolated incident. Studies show that students appear to evaluate women poorly simply because they are women.
Top companies know the benefits that ensue from more gender diversity, not least in financial performance, but despite some excellent progress there remains a profound sense of inertia. Indeed, the Hampton-Alexander review demonstrates that, even with the facts on superior performance and the prospect of more transparency and disclosure, listed companies can and do continue to resist change.
In a debate last year in this Chamber on women in public life, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, made the point that we have tried to “make nice” and adjust our demands to the male norm, but it is time to structurally re-engineer our whole society. Only then will we be able to unpack inbuilt cultural gender bias that the law cannot reach. The noble Baroness’s speech resonated in so many ways. Countless times, I have been told not to make a fuss, but we need to be less complacent and continue to fight. She finished her remarks by calling for quotas and all-women shortlists. In the face of the evidence and the lack of progress, that is harder to resist. We need to stop messing around and take this agenda seriously. It is worth making a fuss. Until and unless we do so, women will be behind for another century, and that is simply unacceptable.