David Cameron: Leading Tory Feminist?
It seems that blue feminism is now becoming so fashionable that even the men of the Conservative party are trying it out. This week David Cameron – once described by Louise Mensch the as the “most feminist Prime Minister” we’ve ever had – has suggested that companies should be encouraged to have at least 30% women on their board of directors.
There are plenty of reasons to criticise Cameron’s decision to take up this issue: it comes at a time when the government are shafting millions of women who aren’t highly paid executives; and rather than encouraging equality, a 25% or 30% quota legitimises a certain amount of discrimination. The cynic in me also thinks this is a blatant PR move, because the official recommendation in a report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is that at least 25% of a board of directors should be female, but since March 2011, 26% of all new appointments to the boards of FTSE 100 companies have been women, and the average percentage of women on all boards is 27%. Many companies are already appointing an “acceptable” percentage of women (or close to it), so the government gets to look as if they’re being tough on big businesses, without actually inconveniencing them too much.
These factors are important, but the proposals also have to be considered in light of Cameron’s own record on gender equality. There are tongue-in-cheek suggestions that he might have nicked the idea from the Danish political drama Borgen (recently shown on BBC4), where the female PM introduces a quota of 45% women in the boardroom. But the important difference between Cameron and Birgitte Nyborg is that the fictional politician has an equal number of men and women her cabinet, while Cameron’s doesn’t even meet his own – considerably lower – target.
The UK cabinet has 23 members, of whom only five are female – that’s just 21.7%. If you include the other six senior politicians who, while not officially part of the cabinet, are required to attend cabinet meetings, then the proportion of women around the table is decreases to 17.2%. Since the cabinet is the closest thing a government has to a board of directors, will Cameron impose the same target on himself at the next reshuffle? Will he do anything to increase the number of female MPs in his own party to more than 16%? Will he set quotas for the percentage of women to be appointed at the highest levels of the civil service? These are areas where it would be easier for the Prime Minister to influence the gender balance, and which are more visible to the general public than anything that happens in a boardroom. While Cameron chooses not to hold government to the same standards, it’s difficult to take his concern for the number of female company directors seriously.
I’m not a fan of the “white knight” model of male feminism, where men take it upon themselves to liberate the poor, helpless women who can’t look after themselves, but if Cameron is going to take up the cause of gender equality, then he’s going to have to get his own house in order first. Until he makes a serious attempt at tackling the gender imbalance in his own government, he has no credibility on this issue.
Tory Prime Minister takes a hypocritical position? Yeah, I wasn’t surprised either.