Off message: Short-sighted shortlists

The Spanish government has paraded its mostly female cabinet to great applause from around the world – the first European country to manage such a feat. Prime minister Jose Zapatero introduced a 60:40 rule two years ago, meaning that no more than 60% of political candidates can be men or women, with a minimum 40% of each sex represented.

This follows the lead of Sweden, where the system has existed since the early 1970s. And it’s clearly a radical change for the macho Spanish culture, only 33 years after the fall of the facist regime of general Franco.

Of course, it’s happened in the UK too, with the Labour Party and the Conservatives both embracing women-only shortlists at one time or another.

But who actually benefits from this kind of enforced equanimity? Women? Certainly, but on an individual rather than collective level. Organisations? Perhaps – there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that women engender a culture with less conflict (although judging from the women currently vying for supremacy in the BBC TV show The Apprentice, that is surely debatable). Society? It’s too early to tell.

The losers?

And who loses out? Men, ethnic minorities (who are not women), disabled people (who are not women), any other minority group (who are not women). But more importantly, what is the calibre of the people that emerge from women-only shortlists?

Much like any street or internet survey, which will only feature the views of those people who have been asked (selection by interviewer based on what?), those who have volunteered (people with a grievance/firmly held belief), those who have been ‘persuaded’ to take part (either with some kind of incentive or intimidation), the end result is not really a fair reflection of society, which is why polls are often way off the mark.

Any limited shortlist will tend to attract the overbearing, the egotistical, the self-deluded. Of course, that does read like a job description for most white, male bosses. But then that, in turn, begs the question: Do we really want more of the same? Do we really want a bunch of unnecessarily driven, over-ambitious, blinkered fools inheriting the mantle of power? Even if it is from a bunch of unnecessarily driven, over-ambitious, blinkered fools.

Positive discrimination is a positively stupid idea and women-only shortlists are equally short-sighted.

But if positive discrimination happens – as is entirely possible under the autocratic cult of Trev at the increasingly mysterious Equalities and Human Rights Commission – and ‘something’-only shortlists are also in operation, how would the picture look then?

A man ideally suited to a role will not be allowed to succeed because the job has a women-only shortlist a woman applies for a job to which she is eminently suited, but she doesn’t get it, because she’s not an ethnic minority a white man and an ethnic minority man go for a job they could both do with ease, but neither gets it, because it’s got a disabled-only shortlist.

If a government takes its advice on diversity from a diversity quango set up to push for diversity – however, forced that might be – then reality doesn’t stand a chance. Because the reality is that society is changing, the old guard is shuffling off and there are more opportunities for people from all backgrounds. Things may not be equal just yet, but they are getting there.

And in the home of the women-only shortlist – Sweden – if 40% of the political jobs go to women, and 40% go to men, what about the rest? I’ve a sneaking suspicion that 20% is likely to be ring-fenced top jobs for the boys – unassailable while everyone focuses on the good news 40:40 split, in a system allegedly designed to bring equality. In Finland, the Independent reports that things have been pushed further, with private corporations forced to adopt the same rules for the make-up of their boards. But that will still mean an enshrined 60:40 bias to men, which is surely ingrained inequality.

Incidentally, apart from me, my team is entirely female. But they didn’t get their jobs because they are women they were appointed because they were the best people for the job – based on the traditional criteria of their ability to do the job, to develop and to grow with the publication. I’m sure they’d be horrified if they thought they’d only been appointed because of their gender.

Worst excesses

Positive discrimination, diversity targets, quotas, women-only shortlists these things are all just ways of perpetuating the inequality by repeating the worst excesses of the past, by alienating a whole new set of people and creating a whole new set of victims.

Any good manager knows, you don’t change things by alienating people, you change things by getting their buy-in.

And sometimes you can’t change things overnight in what is, after all, a very immature society. But perhaps the issue can best be addressed by the HR community, which is one of the rare environments where women dominate. If the world of work was dominated by women, would men-only shortlisted be put forward as a sensible way of achieving equality?

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