Last week Michelle McDowell won the Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year award. A quite outstanding engineer, Michelle McDowell has driven the architectural/engineering business, BDP, forward in an extremely tough market.  But the one thing that annoys me every year is that the winner is always asked the same two banal questions: “How tough is it being a woman in business?” and “Do you agree with positive discrimination for women?”

The first question is easy, I have never heard a woman answer that being a woman in business is a breeze.  In fact, ask any man the same question and you’ll get the exactly the same answer, “it’s tough, very tough”.  No one wants to admit that the achievement of a prize was easy and why should they?  But the second question is the killer, no matter how it is answered the respondent will always end up being chastised one way or another.

A neat side step is to talk about ‘positive action’ to promote and encourage women into and up the ladder of a business career. However, some people support the notion of ‘quotas’.  One of them is the non executive director of Standard Life, Sheelagh Whittaker, who recently said in an interview for the BBC “I am a big supporter of quotas. I believe that we will only have true equality when we have as many incompetent women in positions of power as incompetent men!” This made me laugh out loud, because it is such a deep an honest truth. 

The sad part is that after millions of years of evolution, and three thousand years of non nomadic social development, news reporters seem to be unable to ignore the urge to ask the same stupid questions.  Next year I hope it will be different, that the interview will be a deeper and more meaningful exchange of ideas, in a time slot of more than the normal allotted thirty seconds of air time.

Discrimination exists, fact.  What we do about it is a news item in itself.  Personally I like quotas because not only do they force people to seek out and promote talent in areas where, if they were honest, they might not have looked so hard before, but they also create the environment within which change can happen.

Have a good week,