Last week PwC released a report that ranked Britain as number 18 in a study of 27 OECD countries in its Women in Work index. In response, John Cridland, Director General of the CBI, called for British companies to introduce targets for the number of women they appoint to top jobs . While it may not inspire the same strong emotions as another recent endorsement of a Norse model of women’s rights (the cross-party call for a reform of prostitution laws) the so-called positive action that Cridland advocates is a policy we would do well to interrogate.

What Cridland is pushing for, in an echo of 2013’s Cranfield Female FTSE board report, and Lord Davies of Abersoch’s February 2011 Women on Boards Report, is effectively a system of quotas . The only real difference between Cridland’s recommendation of targets for the number of women on boards and the quota policy CBI members are so quick to decry is that the latter can be legally enforced . The effective work done by the target-setting policy is the same. It is still an attempt to redress the gender imbalance in British economic life with a simple, one-size-fits-all quick-fix.

Admittedly, it is a quick-fix that makes economic sense. Lord Davies writes in the foreword to his 2011 report that”corporate boards perform better when they include the best people who come from a range of perspectives and backgrounds”. Companies with more women on their boards, the report details, see a 42% high return in sales and 66% higher return on investment capital than those entirely dominated by men. Indeed in Norway, where quotas were introduced in 2004 to ensure that at least 40% of directorial roles in larger businesses were filled by female applicants, those voices opposing the policy on the grounds that it would be damaging to business fell silent years ago .

But what if our priority is not the growth of (still predominantly male-owned and managed) British businesses? What if our priority is improving the professional lives of working women and the schoolgirls who hope to join their number? Is the positive action advocated by the CBI then a policy to be endorsed? No. Or at least, I do not think so. Admittedly, setting targets for the number of women admitted on to company boards does offer some benefits to what is, in chronological terms, business’ second sex. The presence of women in positions of responsibility undoubtedly expands the horizon of possibility for schoolgirls and female students. It suggests to them that they are no less justified in aspiring to be the Chief Financial Officer than their male peers. Moreover, it encourages those very boys and men, years later when some of them are positions of power, not to simply disregard the women who apply to join their ranks.
After all, among their mentors and role models will have been a significant number of women.

So John Cridland’s proposed policy of targets would not be without its merits. But then it is not impossible to secure its gains by other means, nor do such gains outweigh its latent dangers. Chief among these, I think, is the danger of bolstering a misogynistic ideology that silently but surely continues to underpin public life. At all levels of the corporate food chain, men whose careers were not progressing as expected would see their fortunes as decided by the ‘unfair advantage’ given to women. And the blame for that ‘unfair advantage’, according to the warped logic of envy, would certainly be placed with not only the women who benefited from it but also (because distinguishing the individual from the kind is often too much for the prejudiced mind) all of those who did not.

And there would, of course, be many women who did not benefit from the targets set for women on boards because there are so few women coming through the corporate pipeline to be considered for the top jobs. This is partly because, although it is not often admitted by those of us passionate about women’s rights, a significant proportion of the most able women of the last few generations have not been interested in entering the corporate world. As is recognised in Lord Davies’ report, in order to find a large pool of women who can be persuaded to join, and are well-placed to join a board of directors, recruiters must often widen their search to include civil servants, academics, and entrepreneurs. There are a lot of women, then, whose professional lives would be improved little by the introduction of what are essentially quotas in the corporate world because they do not desire to be part of that world.

For those who do aspire to be high-flying businesswomen, targets for getting female faces into boardrooms will be helpful only in a minority of cases. That is because the women are arguably prevented from populating our boardrooms not as the result of decisions made by recruiting CEOs but by obstacles cropping up much earlier along the line. For one thing, the greatest educational opportunities at the secondary level are still reserved for boys. Institutions such as Eton and St Paul’s admit only boys and Westminster lets girls through its gates only in sixth form. The networks of old friends through which opportunities in the corporate world are informally advertised, and through which vital advice is casually dispensed, are often exclusively male. Then there is the fact that a lot of women drop off the corporate ladder while holding junior positions or while in the lowest ranks of management. Whether it is a culture of casual misogyny, an inflexibility impossible for mothers to work with, or something else entirely, there is clearly something about the FTSE 500 companies that the CBI is addressing that halts women’s progress long before they are ready to apply to the executive.

Thus measures targeting the gender imbalance in the upper strata of business are little more than cosmetic changes. And like the breast augmentations and botox injections called to mind by that term, such measures are dangerous because they skew women’s perceptions both of what they should be and of what they are, and, crucially, propose a rift between those two terms. Women are given the message that their rightful place is in an office but that they are not good enough to get there without heavy-handed help. It is a message that is neither helpful nor true. To tell the lie that a woman is incapable of fulfilling her aspirations to a high-power job because of her sex does little to spur on those young women who harbour hopes of becoming high-flying professionals. To tell the lie that it is this professional world that is always a woman’s rightful place pushes those girls and women who would prefer a vocation of care giving in a direction that they do not want to take.

If we really want to make progress with women’s rights, we need to commit to longer term, more complex measures with the aim of cultural change. Perhaps that means giving young women new aspirations by inviting more businesswomen to give talks in schools or to give expert opinions on the six o’clock news. Perhaps it means standardising longer paternity leave or working on improving childcare provision for working mothers. Perhaps it means addressing the difference in wage structures in female and male dominated industries. In any case, we have to do something more than introduce targets for the number of women holding the most prestigious jobs in the private sector. While it may yield a surplus for business, as far as its supposed beneficiaries are concerned, such cold mathematics makes for, at best, a zero-sum game.

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