Economic Empowerment for Women: An interview with Vicky Price

By Hannah Brown

You recently published a book entitled ‘Why Women need quotas’, what was your main aim in writing this book?

It has taken some time for women to be even close to attracting the premium that their skills should suggest. Waiting for it to happen will take forever as progress has been painfully slow. The percentage of senior executive posts that are held by women is still below 10% in the UK and the pay gap remains. The Pay Reviews currently being conducted show the gap among our bigger companies to be very large, often blamed to the fact that most senior posts are held by men- this is the case in Easyjet where most pilots are men and most women stewardesses. Even at McKinsey’s who has a female head of UK operations, the gap seems to be over 80%.

It is not that women don’t have the capabilities to rise to the top. Instead, the system wastes their resources by failing to keep them employed in the higher paid jobs and ends up with a shorter and probably not as gifted a pool to choose from in higher job levels. Even though they enter areas such as the professions in greater number than men and their pay in their twenties is higher that gets reversed in their thirties. Women disappear in larger numbers either to have children or because the culture of an organisation is not one they feel comfortable in, since they face both conscious and unconscious bias in many sectors as they progress. We have just seen in a recent survey that women are still often asked whether they intend to have children in interviews despite it being illegal. And when they return to work after a break or when they decide for other reasons to leave full-time employment and work part-time to meet their other obligations (children or elderly parents for example), they often end up in part-time jobs that are a full skill level if not more behind their capability. This reduces their earning power through life – the majority of women in the UK, in fact, work part-time. The gap between hourly pay for a part-time woman and a full-time man is roughly 37%. It also tends to result in women being placed in lower paid jobs such as nurses and care workers.

It is not that women don’t have the capabilities to rise to the top. Instead the system wastes their resources by failing to keep them employed in the higher paid jobs

What do you feel is the most important reason to have quotas for women?

Culture is moving very slowly. Putting women on boards which is what the 30% club is trying to do won’t solve that as there is no way that a woman board member sitting on numerous boards will be able to influence the culture of an organisation to give women a proper chance. The emphasis should be on ensuring there are enough senior women in executive positions to act as role models and influencers. By enforcing quotas over time in executive positions it would compel organisations to change their culture to keep the women even if they have children or want a more flexible type of work pattern- which of course should also benefit the men. That way the pipeline of women as they move up remains fed and by the time one is looking to make senior appointments there is a strong enough pool of both men and women to choose from. It is not positive discrimination- but it allows women to be appointed on merit in proper competition with men – not because they have worked three times as hard as men to get there (which is unfair), or because they are the token woman all boards need!

Why do you think economic empowerment is so important for women in our society today?

First and foremost, it is because it is the only fair thing to do. Secondly, it makes good economic sense as what is a majority of the population is able to contribute properly to the economy. Thirdly, if achieved, it will change the power balance for ever which the #meToo movement and others are focusing minds on. In my view, however much we protest and wear black in BAFTA ceremonies that shift in power won’t happen until economic equality has been achieved.

It is about being paid the same for a job you do as the man or as much as an equivalent job would pay. It is for being in senior roles that make the decisions that matter to us all. Yes, women do make most spending decisions in the household because this is the role that is being assigned to them. They choose kids’ clothes, holidays, what cereal to get, what to do at half term, how to spread a possibly tight budget. But that does not give them power as they are not represented as much in the roles that make the big decisions about war and peace, for example, or in strategic company decisions that determine the employment and livelihood of millions. And yet, unfortunately, even if they work full time they still do more than 60% of the household chores while men decide on mergers and acquisitions, accounting rules etc. The balance is not right.

Current practices prevent this power balance from being reversed. But the perception that women are less good than men in what have been seen to be traditional male sectors has persisted. And yet during the wars, they provided very good substitutes for the men who had gone off to fight, working very effectively in large numbers in factories and lots of other areas that men had kept to themselves until then.

Yes, feminism may not be the right label. But one hasn’t ditched the word democracy, which my Greek ancestors invented, because it has changed so dramatically since Greek times. The current emphasis on pay gaps and equal treatment is focusing the minds on what really matters and feminism is being metamorphosed- another Greek word. Remember, the vote gained 100 years ago gave women the right to vote if they owned property. A very narrow definition, but one that showed that rights increased in line with economic assets.

I think that if we are to progress as a society we ought to address disagreements and factual inaccuracies that no-one knows are wrong or, even, no-one is willing to challenge. Considering this, if a person were to say to you ‘the pay gap does not exist’ and starts to talk about how it ‘breaks even because of maternity leave’, how would you respond?

I would say look at the facts! It is just not true.

We were recently at a debate together on ‘has feminism lost its way’ where you said to me that we will gain more gender equality ‘as soon as a mediocre woman becomes a head of industry’. This statement was very poignant to me. Your statement suggests that women need to be incredibly skilful to attain a powerful position in business whereas a man can be mediocre to attain such a role. How, as a society, do you think we should go about finding representation for women in business?

A better representation within a company or organisation of the diversity of the society in which it operates makes good business sense. And not using the available talent in the best way or wasting the investment one has made on women in the organisation if they decide to then up and leave makes very little sense. Therefore, focus on two things: change education focus and career advice to encourage girls to overcome the fear of maths and study the types of subjects- science but also economics- that provide the chance to earn on average a lot more through their lives than other areas where women tend to congregate. And then ensure that policy is such as to lead to the development of role models that girls and women can aspire to emulate in the future. We have seen how beneficial it has been in the civil service to women who want careers there, through the changes in work practices where women are promoted even when they are pregnant. Interestingly, this has also benefited men who can take advantage of the more flexible working environment. There should also be substantial help with childcare. It should be free for all, above the age of one as it now exists in places like Norway. It pays back in the long term through higher employment, higher earnings, more income tax being paid to government, and less need for unemployment, welfare and housing benefits, indirect taxes such as VAT.

There should also be substantial help with childcare. It should be free for all

And how do we make these positions more accessible to women?

Quotas operating effectively would accelerate the elimination of bias and with more women around that would also reduce unconscious bias against women.

Do you believe that many major businesses have males as heads of industry because they have been deemed ‘the powerful sex’ throughout history? If so, how do we go about tackling this notion that males need to be in charge? Should we be teaching young women that it is good for them to be powerful and in charge, given that a lot of our conditioning comes from the way we are brought up?

Yes, there is a lot that conditions women through their early years. School attitudes are also very important. Yet despite that, girls now on average do better than boys at school, larger percentages go to university and they are better paid in the early part of their careers. It is the lack of role models later and the difficulty of combining motherhood and work and the continuing sexism that exists in many sectors that, on balance, matters much more than conditioning.

How do we approach the issue of lack of economic empowerment for women without certain men taking up arms against us? Surely, we need to ensure that people aren’t thinking that women are ‘knocking men down in order to gain more for themselves’, which is a common argument against the feminist movement these days. Therefore, how do we inspire and convince everyone that change needs to be done for women within the economy to ensure gender equality?

I know it makes sense in the longer term but it won’t act unless forced, as cultural change is painful in short term. So there is no point in wasting time ‘convincing’ – just act to ensure it happens. There is a clear market failure here that has existed for too long and this justifies intervention to correct it.

You occasionally focus on using the word female when you relate to your reader certain statistics. What would you say to a critic who perhaps feels your book is too binary an outlook and is not accounting for people who do not identify through the sex they were born with such as trans women? Do you believe that it is important for us to perhaps consider economic empowerment for women through an intersectional outlook?

My view is that if you achieve economic empowerment for a majority, which is what women are, then the benefits will be felt across all other sections of the population, however one defines oneself.

Photograph: Policy Exchange via Flickr

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