Neville Rolfe: Gender equality will not start with quotas


Sexual equality will not be created by quotas, but by changing our culture, and allowing competent and confident women to move up the career ladder. It's about pipelines, said Baroness Lucy Neville Rolfe in an interview with EURACTIV.

Baroness Lucy Neville Rolfe is a member of the UK House of Lords. She is a former board member of Tesco and is currently President of EuroCommerce. She spoke to EURACTIV’s editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti.

We are approaching the European elections. Right now, 35% of the European Parliament is made up of women. It’s a good number, but it is still not balanced. The current Commission has pushed for quotas on company boards. How do we deliver genuine gender equality?

 Clearly women must be treated equally. I’ve never been a fan of “You’ve got to have 40% of women on boards.” We have seen the results in some places. In Norway, for example, they brought non-executive women to balance the boards and reach the target.

I’ve been passionate about pipelines. Wherever I worked, I’ve always tried to encourage talented young people to come forward and give them experience, even when, like I did myself, you take time off to have kids and sometimes have to get a part-time package.

You need a plan, and you need to concentrate on the pipeline, and you need to work to actually get women into pivotal jobs.

So, I had two careers. First, I was in the civil service for over 15 years. Then I joined Tesco. When I was in the civil service, I had a pivotal job. I worked for the Minister, I led European negotiations, I led legislation in Parliament. The fact that I had kids didn’t stop me from taking the sort of important core business jobs. That, when I went into business, was something I tried to replicate, encouraging people to do the same.

It is about women who want to get through, and put in the hours. I never worked half-time, and I was always flexible. It is also about encouraging women to have confidence, to believe in themselves. Women underestimate their abilities, to be honest. They think they’re not ready, when actually they are ready. Young men have a bit more self-confidence.

For me, it is about thinking intelligently, thinking about pipelines, thinking about the executives as well as just notional numbers of heads. I would apply the same principle to Parliament, and the European Parliament. It’s important to have women in leadership positions, at which Europe is not too bad. We have two or three quite gutsy women Commissioners. Of course, in Germany, we have Chancellor Angela Merkel, a great role model.

Isn’t that the exception? If you look at the European Council family pictures, it is clear that women are underrepresented.

I was talking about the Commission.  I don’t think it’s possible for the EU leaders to do much. It’s up to the individual member states to change the composition of their cabinets. Change starts at home, in your own political family.

Despite years of gender equality legislation, we are far from parity. There is change. But it is pretty insignificant, isn't it?

I think there is some change. You talked yourself about the 33%. That’s a big change, if you look at historical time scales. So that must be good news. But I think you’ve got to have people in the right jobs who can do their jobs well in the public interest. It doesn’t help women to be put in a slot to do work they can’t do. We need to help them do the work that they want.

You are a lawmaker now. Do you think we have the right policies to allow women to take this leadership role?

Clearly there’s been a huge change as a result of equal rights legislation. You can’t be discriminated against in the same way, and that is good. In many member states there’s been good work-life balance legislation. In the UK, our government is bringing a new provision that will allow men to take some of the maternity leave instead of women.

And then the infrastructure side, which is in the remit of member states again, we are pushing for good care for small children, and nursery care in schools. All this requires long-term planning. It’s a bit like building the schools themselves. You've got to build that up slowly.

I think the direction of the policy is pro-women. You’re never going to find it that easy to get to 50-50 women. If you look at sports, you end up with different amounts of skills, and I think, in a way, “Vive la difference.”

Trying to have a 50% quota, you would be doomed to failure. I wouldn’t try to do that. What you’ve got to do is work at the culture, and work at getting the change. You’ve got to work with people. Let’s give this person a chance. Giving them the core business jobs will enable them to get to the top. The best companies do that.

In politics, you do see more women come through. If you’re a woman, you often get more attention and if you’re very junior, that’s actually quite tough. You need to have the time to comfortably develop, so that you can move on.

When I was a very young civil servant, it was very hostile for women. As my working life went on, it got easier. Now I’m in the House of Lords, it’s more men. There are a few women around, and they’re quite confident.

You said in a recent interview that the House of Lords was stuck in the 20th century, and needed to move to the 21st century. Would you say the same for Europe?

I think all political institutions need to embrace the latest trends. In the 14th century they needed to take on the printing press. They need to be digital. The European Parliament is quite interesting because the voting is digital.

But I’ve been struck by working methods. Why can’t we use modern technologies? Why can’t we have an app for each piece of legislation, with all the different things you need to read? Something very basic like that. That sort of transition could make a big difference in Europe. Modern technology allows you to translate documents just by reading. It’s about digital modernisation.

You need a house that has diversity. Having a decent number of women is important.

What I meant is related to the current debate on the repatriation of competences, and your view on where Europe is heading in the 21st century.

I’m pro-EU, otherwise, I wouldn’t be president of EuroCommerce. I think the EU has achieved a lot in terms of peace, stability, the single market….

But I do think politics is important as well. It is right to give people the chance to express their views, so we’re having a referendum, if the Conservatives get the backing.

It seems as though the discourse is getting more populist.

I think that has partly to do with the media. I’ve lived a referendum before. I was working in the ministry of agriculture on food prices. Some of the work I did was important in the campaign, because at the time, prices of sugar, grains all went up, and the EU subsidized food. You have to remember the things the EU has achieved, but there will have to be changes. The free movement of people is a big issue in the UK and other member states.

Sometimes it’s the abuses of the system that should be tackled, rather than changing the policy altogether…

We have to work together at that. The free flow of people in Europe has integrated Europe, and has led to more tolerant generations.

In the UK, our welfare system acts as a magnet. People from other member states come because it’s so generous. It’s a problem. These things don’t help.

Mrs. Thatcher felt that Britain had a very unjust budget settlement and that was changed as a result. Last year, Cameron had quite a good deal on the budget. The EU isn’t increasing its budget. It’s cutting its cloth to very difficult circumstances.

Standing as the president of a European trade association, what direction should Europe take?

Europe should work to be more competitive. With the rise of Asia, and the continuing success of the USA, we have to be able to play our part on the world’s stage. To do that, we have to be competitive. Competitiveness means successful trade rounds.

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