Cameron is in Sweden today, talking about how he might follow the Scandinavian example and set quotas for the number of women on company boards.
If he’s serious about considering it, it’s a very positive sign that his “responsible capitalism” rhetoric is backed up by a desire for action. Of course, it’s been emphasised that he’s attending the summit in Stockholm to “learn” from our northern neighbours. We’re still a long way from a new direction, let alone a law, on this. Baby steps.
However, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail reports of Cameron’s trip are already importing the derogatory language favoured by Scandinavian critics of this move. The Norwegian opposition to the measures call the women who benefit from the quotas “gullskjørtene”, or “golden-skirts”, a term quite clearly selected to belittle these women. ‘Golden’, as in golden handshake, implies an underserved award of some kind, while the reference to ‘skirt’ serves to highlight their femaleness, and thus their unsuitability for a seat in the boardroom, as well as being a derogatory and impersonal way of referring to a person.
The Mail and the Telegraph have both used the phrase, calling this a discussion about ‘so-called golden-skirt quotas’. We’re a long way from implementing such quotas ourselves. Let’s not, in otherwise straight and balanced reports, insert the lazy language of another country's opposition on this issue before we’ve even started debating if it might work here. Just prefacing it with ‘so-called’ isn’t enough to neutralise the term.
The Norwegian Gender Equality Act is a rare piece of legislation, because as well as prohibiting discrimination and mandating equal opportunities, it places a duty on employers to make ‘active, targeted and systematic efforts’ to use their company to promote gender equality.
In Sweden, a quarter of boardroom posts are held by women. In the UK, it’s 12%. By all means, let’s debate the pros and cons of having such a law here. But until we start automatically calling the men who sit on boards the ‘pig-headed pinstripes’ or the ‘complacent cummerbunds’, let’s steer clear of lazy characterisations of the women who might be finally about to join them in the boardroom.