The Guardian homepage, the Twittersphere and a lot of men in pinstripe suits and women with glossy hair, are clinking glasses of champers today because the number of women in board rooms is at an all-time high. FTSE 100 companies are only a handful of women away from meeting the almighty target of 25% set for them by famous egalitarian Vince Cable in 2011.
“Just 17 places to fill, ladies!”, Telegraph WonderWoman exclaimed excitedly, whilst former trade minister Lord Davies, who carries out the annual report and review of Cable’s target, stated determinedly that “boards are getting fixed.” The number of women in board rooms of FTSE 100 companies has almost doubled in three years. 263 women now sit at the top.
And I really couldn’t give a toss.
Now, when I start going on about FTSE companies or indeed anyone who clinks champagne glasses on a regular basis, I tend to get a bit het up and sweary. I’m really going to try and be balanced here because what I’m trying to say isn’t just about this particular initiative or story, it’s about feminism’s – and society’s – priorities as a whole, and, y’know, that probably deserves consideration rather than ranting. This will be a huge effort for me because I’m currently suffering from an almighty earache. But lets try.
The facts, at face value, seem good news. Four years ago, there were less women in positions of power than there are now. Board rooms will look more gender diverse than they did in 2011. A government initiative which has focused on improving things for women has worked. Hurrah for all that, clap clap clap, clink clink clink, cheers cheers cheers.
Let’s look at some more facts, about a few of the FTSE 100 companies these women now have a greater say in, and about how they treat their workers and the rest of us.
Sports Direct, a famous zero-hours employer, recently saw one of its employees give birth literally on the job. Sports Direct never commented on what had happened but as the woman was a zero-hours worker like the vast majority of SD staff, she would have had no rights to maternity or sick pay and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that she was at work because she couldn’t afford not to be.
J Sainsbury, Morrisons and Tesco are all supermarket giants who repeatedly refuse to pay their retail staff – the majority of whom are women – the living wage. Tesco in particular has been repeatedly criticised for very dodgy employment practices.
Imperial Tobacco – leaving aside the fact they cause the deaths of millions of people – made hundreds of people redundant last year when they decided to shift their factory from Nottingham to a cheaper site in mainland Europe where workers are easier to exploit. In America, child workers on their plantations – yeah, that’s right, child workers – are suffering acute nicotine poisoning en masse.
HSBC, Barclays and RBS are all banks mired by scandals of the sort which helped cause the 2008 crash: enough said.
Now in all honesty, does anyone really feel that the fact more women will be shitting on maternity rights, helping the rich to evade tax, ignoring the fact that their child workers are being poisoned and flogging crap sports clothes made by sweatshop labourers, is going to get us any nearer to any sort of equality? Before you start with that guff that us girls are nicer people and therefore more of us on boards will mean more rainbows and kittens: I deliberately picked all of those companies to skewer because they already have women on their boards. They just also happen to be some of the worst offenders.
So when Elena Doldor, the report’s co-author, says “Introducing aspirational and measurable targets for women at all levels is the only way to achieve real progress,” I don’t just want fall asleep at the mention of “measurable targets”, I want to scream: “WHAT SORT OF PROGRESS IS MEASURED BY HOW MANY OF US CAN GET RICH AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHERS?”
Because initiatives around things like the number of women in board rooms are simply elitist feminism. This is feminism for the few, feminism working to prop up the system we have rather than change it. It is basically not feminism. It fixes things for only a few hundred women at the expense of all others. It’s just capitalism. Unless you believe in the trickle-down effect, you’ve no cause to celebrate women in board rooms.
To make it a bit clearer: can you imagine the scale of benefit which would happen if the government and business leaders applied initiatives and targets to solving all the problems listed above?
If Vince Cable decided to give a shit about making sure 100% of all women workers have adequate maternity leave, if Imperial Tobacco decided to have a quota of 0% of its workforce classed as children (can we just pause a minute and ask why the fuck that is still a problem in 2015?), if supermarkets decided to set a deadline for paying their workers a wage they could live on, if banks set a “measurable target” for just abiding by the bloody law. If this government decided to fix things for the single mums who’ve lost 15.6% of their income under this government, rather than the 263 women who’ve likely seen theirs balloon.
Initiatives like that would make lives better for millions, not hundreds, of women – and men, come to that, and that would be true feminism. I would give a toss about that. But excuse me if I don’t raise my glass to toast FTSE women, when they’re well known for refusing to share the champagne.