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Tackling gender inequality: are quotas the answer?

The legal industry currently faces a myriad of changes and challenges. Ramped up client demand, the impact of GDPR and Brexit—as well as new, innovative technology improving the delivery of legal services.

However, one of the most important issues confronting the legal industry today—and, indeed, all areas of business—is gender equality in the workplace.

In recent years, the awareness around gender equality has come more to the fore, and is on the radar for many organisations. Though, since the Equality Act came into force in 2010, progress has been slow and there is still no sign of the situation improving anytime soon.

Women are generally far less likely to hold senior leadership positions within organisations, and recent reports highlighting the extent of the gender pay gap between men and women only emphasise the enormity of the task at hand in achieving gender parity in the workplace.

What about quotas?

Thomson Reuters Legal Debate addressed this very issue on Wednesday night. ‘Quotas are the only solution to gender equality in the workplace’. That was the motion put before an audience from across the legal industry at the event in central London.

The ‘targets vs quotas’ debate has been rumbling on for some time. While the destination for each approach is largely the same, many feel that quotas is the wrong way forward.

However, is it time for a rethink? And could quotas tackle gender inequality in the workplace?

The pre-debate vote by the audience showed that 54 percent were against the debate’s motion, while 46 percent believed that quotas are the only solution to gender equality in the workplace.

Seeking to reverse the audience’s pre-debate consensus, Catherine Mayer, Co-Founder of the Women’s Equality Party, and Dr Charlotte Proudman, Barrister at Goldsmith Chambers, argued in favour of the debate’s motion. Meanwhile, Justin Webb, Journalist and Radio Presenter, and Vivienne Artz, President of Women in Banking and Finance and Chief Privacy Officer at Thomson Reuters, argued against the motion.

“Quotas are about ripping open the doors and letting people in”, said Mayer, who was first up to deliver her argument. She added that sometimes laws are important to drive change, adding: “Quotas are like that. Quotas are a brilliant way of creating and anchoring institutional change. If warm words and targets without teeth were enough, we’d be a hell of a lot closer to parity”.

Mayer went on to frame her case by positing the reasoning behind gender inequality, such as the “clubby culture, where people hire people they feel comfortable with”, unconscious bias—and the need for “properly funded parental leave”.

The long-time journalist and author’s compelling case outlined why she believes quotas are urgently necessary, referencing personal experiences where stark institutional gender inequality has been laid bare, including her time as a Westminster correspondent, and instances in dealing with the legal sector.

Poised to quash the quota agenda, the BBC’s veteran presenter, Webb, was up next. Citing the younger generation in his argument, Webb added that “it was dangerous” to address people, specifically women, in a way that persuades them they are anything other than “fully autonomous and able members of society”—suggesting that quotas present such a risk.

Webb went on to argue that progress on gender equality is being made, and introducing quotas could have an adverse effect. “If you lose sight of the progress that has been made, and if you replace the constant pushing for progress with a heavy-handed system that creates more trouble than it is worth, I think you run the risk of going backwards”, he said.

However, Proudman was ready to fire back, instantly proclaiming that she was an “angry feminist”. The City barrister passionately spoke about the need for gender parity—particularly within the judiciary, adding that the system needs to reflect society, with female judges from all walks of life.

In a bid to debunk any argument against her case, Proudman vied to shoot down a common perception of quotas where women are deemed to “only be in a position because they are women”, and would not be respected. She added: “To that I say three things: yes, I am here because I’m a woman. I’m also in this position because I’m bloody brilliant and for centuries there has been an unwritten quota for white privileged men”.

Proudman concluded by asserting that the current approach is taking too long, adding: “I want to see equality in my lifetime. Quotas are not a radical solution, they are necessary. They are not the only solution, they are part of the solution”.

Artz disagreed, and responded by branding quotas as nothing more than a “temporary fix” that won’t actually change anything.

In an articulate broadside against quotas, Artz added that they risk forcing through change, and it is the wider system that needed to evolve. “You can’t force change and expect it to work. They [quotas] force change without changing the structure around them. It forces women into the unenviable position of being a number—a token, without changing the underlying a structure, attitudes or criteria for success”, she said.

Further, Artz added that she believed targets were the way forward, and referred to an instance where she has seen them be effective in the financial services sector—bound by accountability, and transparency.

“I’m not interested in a headline solution for the here and now. I’m interested in a solution that is going to deliver change for the woman of today and the woman of tomorrow”, concluded Artz.

At this stage, the chair, Gary Hurry, Vice President of Marketing at Thomson Reuters Legal UK & Ireland, allowed the audience to pose questions to the panel.

The debaters made closing comments and appealed to the remaining swing voters in the audience, after which the final votes were counted. And in a big turnaround from the pre-debate vote, Mayer and Proudman were the victors, after a lively and contentious debate, with 57 percent of the audience backing the motion that quotas are the only solution to gender equality in the workplace.

Watch the Legal Debate’s highlights or the full-length video.

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