If women aren’t at the table, they’re on the menu

by Emma Ritch, Executive Director of Engender

In the last couple of weeks there has been a flurry of interest in the issue of women on boards in Scotland. There’s been some media attention, including a discussion on Scotland Tonight and news articles.

To young women who are studying, or working in their first jobs, the boardroom seems like an incredibly remote place. We’re all much more likely to see one on TV or in films than in real life. Most of us will never sit in their comfortably padded chairs, or make decisions around their enormous tables.

Yet the decisions made in boardrooms are important to all of us. It’s where private sector newsagents and supermarkets decide whether to continue selling lads’ mags like Nuts and Zoo. It’s where public bodies decide how much funding services like Rape Crisis centres will receive. It’s where all organisations decide how they will focus their time and resources.

There’s a saying that’s often repeated when the subject of women and boards comes up: “If women aren’t at the table, they’re on the menu.” It means that discussions that don’t include women often come to conclusions that don’t reflect the reality of women’s lives.

When you bring women into the conversation, you talk about different subjects. The 50/50 campaign brought women’s groups together to campaign for gender parity in the Scottish Parliament. They were successful in creating a Parliament with a different culture from Westminster’s; one with family-friendly working hours, and a crèche that can be used by visitors.

The international evidence tells us that the best performing boards are those that have a mix of men and women. They make better, wiser decisions. When it comes to public services, which we all depend on, it’s even more important to be sure that women are among the decision-makers and that good decisions get made. So how do we collectively make sure that women get a seat at the table?

Despite decades of awareness-raising, many organisations have a very low number of women on their boards. Many countries around the world have introduced quotas to get balance more quickly. These temporary arrangements mean that organisations are required by law to find women to fill a certain proportion of their board positions. It’s common for this proportion to be around 40 per cent, which is still a lot less than the proportion of people who are women! Contrary to the doom and gloom predictions that there wouldn’t be enough talented women to fill all these extra positions, countries that have introduced quotas have found that the quality of the people on their boards has gone up. Their board members are even more qualified and skilled to make the important decisions.

Public sector cuts have had a serious impact on women in Scotland, both as workers and as people who depend on public services. It’s time for us to take a bold step to make sure that women’s voices are part of all the conversations about the future of Scotland’s public services.