Dita De Boni: The myth of pure meritocracy

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Business is making moves towards gender equity. Now, how about politics?

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

Once upon a time, I was among the many women who bristled at the idea that there needed to be a certain number of women in politics, on management boards, or anywhere else.

"If they're good enough, they'll make it there on merit!" I'd think, parroting the prevailing mood and ignoring even my own experience of the media, the business world, of life in general.

I'd write stories on female business mentoring schemes and the like, without seeing what was right in front of me - the plethora of amazing female would-be senior managers who struggled to be seen and heard, let alone promoted.

Slowly, I realised that to believe women get the same opportunities to make it in business and politics is to believe we live in a pure meritocracy, which is, like "pure capitalism", a fiction. We recognise this fact in some ways - we ensure there are a certain number of Maori politicians, for example - but when there are attempts to ensure women get a fair suck at the sauce bottle, they are ridiculed and mocked.

The Greens' mandated male/female leadership team, and Labour's attempts to ensure half its caucus is female by 2017 - a policy quickly dubbed the "man ban" - are two such victims of mockery. How lamentable.

When one looks at the line-up of political leaders contesting this year's election, one sees lots of white males, a few brown males, and one woman, Metiria Turei, who may be there under some sort of "quota", but who brings something entirely different to the table - not least her implacable manner as she is subjected to the nasty taunts of the National Party's Margaret Thatcher acolytes.

But the tide is turning towards embracing "quota" systems for women, if not for politics, alas, then certainly for business. Britain's Lloyds Banking Group is saying that by 2020, it will ensure that 40 per cent of its top 5,000 senior managers are women - the first FTSE-100 company to establish a formal gender target for the coveted positions. Lloyds is a pioneer, but it is also following the lead of the UK Government, which backs an informal target to ensure that by 2015 women occupy a quarter of the places on the boards of big listed companies.

There are a few reasons why Lloyds has made this move - one being that as the largest bank in Britain, it has the most diverse pool of clients, and that concerns nearest to the hearts of those clients should be reflected in the company's upper echelons.

There is some evidence to suggest that companies with diverse management and boards do better financially than less-diverse outfits (though it does seem to depend on what data you look at) and there's also the argument that having more females running financial institutions might have averted the Global Financial Crisis (probably a bit of a stretch).

Others think the Lloyds move is a publicity stunt, and it has certainly gained the bank many column inches. Whatever the case, it is hard to not see the move as a harbinger for the world in general. One can easily imagine some of our pollies lining up to make fun of the Lloyds iteration of the "man ban", and then, being faced with the cold rationality of bankers - something they do appear to respect - thinking better of it.

- NZ Herald

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