The headlines today are celebrating the UK’s return to pre-crisis levels of economic output. GDP is back where it was in 2007. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg declared, “The fact that the British economy is now as large, if not slightly larger than it was just before the crisis happened, shows that the rescue mission that we said was the principal purpose of this Government has worked.”
But is this GDP figure remotely relevant? The Chancellor and his cheerleaders would like us to believe it is a highly significant milestone in the country’s slow slow recovery. But the total size of the UK’s economy is not nearly as important as the level of output per person.
Because while we may, as a country, be producing as much as we were before the crash, there are now many more of us doing the production. Over two million more, in fact. Our output per person remains well below 2007 levels, which is why our living standards remain depressed. If we were truly back to where we started, we would expect the economy to have grown by at least as much as the population.
What practical significance is there in the truth that the total size of the economy is back to pre-crash levels? Absolutely none. This moment is purely symbolic — which won’t stop the government milking it to the full.
In explaining the origins of her timely and influential book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recalls the prevailing assumption throughout many organisations in recent years that the battle for gender equality had been won and women could now expect to be judged and promoted just the same as men.
“People just thought, ‘Oh yeah, women are doing great!’ And I’m looking around, and every year there are fewer women in the room.”
By her analysis of the historical data, women made great progress for several decades but that progress stalled ten years ago. Women currently hold fewer than 6% of the top CEO jobs in any country. Women represent a minority in every government, NGO and industry. In the US, 75% of workers in the non-profit sector are women, but only 21% of the big non-profits are run by women. Yes, there are practical challenges for women with children, but that’s not enough to explain the imbalance. Her conclusion: we still choose leaders based on their gender and we still put barriers in the way of professional women.
I too was guilty of the lazy assumption she identified, perhaps because I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, and because in consulting and publishing women do tend to thrive. But it’s also the case that the leadership teams and executive committees I work with across Europe and America tend to be around 90% male. Aside from in HR and Comms roles, women are dreadfully represented at the tops of most organisations.
So Sandberg’s realisation that our perception of reality had become distorted and needed to be reshaped resonates with me. We had let ourselves be misled by an old (and possibly outdated) truth — that opportunities for women are improving — into missing a more important competing truth — that we still have a long way to go.