Vicky Pryce: “Women fear positive action, but we need quotas”

26 Mar 2020 By Katie Jacobs

The economist argues the business case for gender equality, and for educating and employing ex-offenders

“It does have a challenging title,” says Vicky Pryce of her latest book. She’s not wrong. Women vs Capitalism shouts the cover (subtitle: Why We Can’t Have It All in a Free Market Economy). But Pryce doesn’t seem like someone who has ever worried about being provocative.

Greek-born Pryce is chief economic adviser at the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Former roles include joint head of the UK Government Economic Service, director-general for economics at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and a KPMG partner. 

But she became more well known in 2013 after being found guilty of perverting the course of justice for accepting driving licence penalty points incurred by her ex-husband (former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne) and being sentenced to eight months in prison (serving two). Her subsequent book, Prisonomics, explored the economic and human cost of putting women behind bars, and Pryce is a patron of the charity Working Chance, which helps female ex-offenders find work. 

In Women vs Capitalism, Pryce argues gender inequality is ultimately a market failure, only fixed by increased regulation and reshaping capitalism. People Management sat down with her at the CIPD Scotland Annual Conference to find out more…

Why Women vs Capitalism

There’s a question of rebalancing and the #MeToo movement has pushed that. But people are not arguing consistently about the economic prosperity you can have if blockages on women’s labour market participation are removed. 

There are so many restrictions, where women can’t open bank accounts, have property rights, work in particular jobs or access education. The welfare and output gains to be achieved by removing obstacles are enormous. We are missing out – and that isn’t counting all the unpaid work women do. The current system is focused on short-term profits. We need leaders to invest for the long term on things like diversity. But it’s a challenge to invest in something that will take time to have an effect. 

And you think change can only come through regulation?

Every improvement in women’s position and the balance of power has come through regulation. Left to itself the system would not have brought in equal pay acts. It had to be pushed – and unfortunately it still needs to be pushed. Market failures require intervention. Quotas are more important than targets, and we need to look at executive not board positions. We may have achieved 30 per cent women on boards, but for female execs on boards we are still below 10 per cent. 

How do you define quotas?

They should focus on senior positions below board level. Women fear being tarnished by positive action, but that’s not how I envisage quotas. We need quotas that are sensible and achievable over a number of years. That forces organisations to build the pipeline and change the culture by thinking more about things like flexible work. 

In time you would have plenty of people to choose from [for a top job]. Whoever gets it will be the right person, whatever their gender. It’s unlikely you wouldn’t find a woman to fill a role if they were around – the problem is they are not around. Quotas would have a sunset clause, and so would be removed once the culture has changed.

Do you think there’s more appetite for quotas today? 

Definitely. I was on a panel recently and everyone agreed quotas were the way to go. The audience bought it. A few years ago that wouldn’t have been the case. Many women in senior positions also now feel quotas are the only way to go.

You talk about women being trapped in economic inequality. What drives that? 

It starts with education. It’s not that women don’t do better – 
they often do – but options get closed off. Schools don’t encourage girls to do STEM subjects and 
there aren’t enough senior role models to inspire them.

Women are more likely to go part time, particularly after having children: 42 per cent of women work part time, compared to 13 per cent of men. Part-time work per hour earns 35 per cent less than full-time work. That’s a big gap, which means lifetime earnings get significantly reduced. By the time they get to pension age, a British woman’s pension is a fifth of that of a man. The Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at the commuting distance of men and women after having a child – the woman’s shrinks but the man’s grows. So you find women ghettoised in lower-paid areas, while men migrate to higher-paid jobs.

What impact will automation have?

Technology is hitting women harder. In retail, 170,000 jobs will disappear this year alone, and that includes online customer services. Where do people go? Perhaps a universal basic income 
is needed because of this and all the unpaid work women do. 

What steps should HR take?

If an organisation doesn’t change, talented women will lean out, not lean in. Think about training, especially women on maternity leave. We should discourage coming back part time up to a point, as that immediately puts women at a disadvantage. The solution should be to encourage mothers to work as much as they can, but flexibly.

Everyone should have the right of flexibility, irrespective of the business case. One of the reasons people don’t opt for this is they worry they won’t progress. That’s one of the reasons men don’t want to take paternity leave. HR needs to construct flexible arrangements that aren’t seen to disadvantage those who take them. If you change the culture for women, you also will for men. That’s brilliant for family life and reduces working hours.

What advice would you give HR around hiring ex-offenders?

Most women who have gone to prison do not represent a threat to society. They’ve gone for something trivial or for being poor and vulnerable, and only three out of every 100 offences go to court. Those who are keen to get jobs will give it their all. Jobs keep people from reoffending: the greatest correlation with low crime rates is education and employment. Employing ex-offenders is good for individuals, organisations and the community.   

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