Jo Swinson, reverse convergence and PP Factors 3 & 5

“Just because a man would do it doesn’t make it the right thing to do.”

These are Jo Swindon’s words in explaining why she has decided not to run for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats.  I think her decision is a brave and important one.

I’m not a Lib Dem supporter, but my understanding is that Jo was the frontrunner for the leadership.  She has a strong track record of commitment to equalities, so in one sense it’s sad that she won’t be leading the party, on this as well as on other issues.  But I applaud her for coming to the decision, and for explaining it as she has done.

“Feminist that I am, I have of course wondered what a bloke in my position would do.  It’s obvious.  Most blokes in my shoes would run for leader like a shot.”

The fact that most men would have gone for it doesn’t make it wrong.  Men are indeed far more likely to go for positions for which they are only partly qualified – what I’ve called the 60/20 rule: men will go for jobs they are 60% qualified for;  women won’t go for jobs they think they lack 20% of the qualifications.  There can be quite a lot to be said for going for positions beyond the comfort zone, and aiming to grow into a job, learning those bits you don’t already know.  (There’s much less to be said for going for positions where you are not even aware of your lack of competence.)  But the 60/20 rule definitely means that fewer competent people are matched to  jobs in a reasonably meritocratic way.

Jo Swinson’s choice – a constrained choice but a positive choice nevertheless – brings to the fore a really challenging issue:  how far the male pattern is upheld as the model for the future.  Up to now, the direction of career travel has overwhelmingly been towards the male model:  full-time, continuous, and  ‘upwards’ in the occupational hierarchy, as quickly as possible.   More women now follow that pattern than ever before, in part of course because they are now better qualified.  Claudia Golden, the distinguished US economist, has written about the ‘last chapter of convergence’ being the full recognition of  part-time work.  In part I warmly agree with her.  But there is the danger that the ‘ fast upwards’ model of career progression will continue to dominate.

Reverse convergence means enabling more people – men as well as women – to behave differently.  Some of that is about day-to-day behaviour, or habits such as table-banging to gain a bonus, where less of the male pattern would be a good.  But there is also a specific attitude to building a career, where choosing not to follow the direct upwards path may be the wise decision.

Of course lots of men as well as women already do this, consciously or otherwise.  But to have some like Jo Swinson do so so explicitly marks a further step forward in reverse convergence.

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