Why Gender Quotas for Boards Can Be an Effective Tool in Promoting Balance

The Lord Davies report was published in early 2011 when women made up just 12.5% of FTSE 100 Boards. At the time, he set the goal of 25% female representation on Boards in the UK by 2015, and would reserve the right to impose gender quotas if progress couldn’t be made in that time. As of mid 2012, we have not reached just over 16%, though most of that growth is in Non-Executive Directorships, rather than on Executive Committee appointments. Still we are on the right track. Since the publication of the report, I have heard good arguments from men and women both for and against gender quotas – and feelings do not necessarily align with gender. I have heard women argue vociferously against them and men speak up in their favour.  As this is probably the most frequently asked question I’ve been asked in the last 18 months, I thought I’d share why I’m in favour of quotas if we can’t reach parity of our own volition.

Clearly, every woman and man would like to be awarded Board positions based on merit. This has largely fed the argument against them; that ‘giving’ women these positions will undermine their credibility with colleagues and diminish their sense of accomplishment. Women would rather feel like ‘I got there on my own’. While I completely empathise with this position; let’s not cut off our nose to spite our feminist face. We think women will ‘worry’ about why they were given a senior role or if they were advantaged because of their gender. However, Edward doesn’t wonder if he was given a ‘helping hand’ into senior roles because he does favours for John or routinely has drinks with Robert. Men don’t take time to question their promotions. Rather they assume what the women who are rewarded with these promotion must also assume; ‘I got it because I’m damn good!’ They are not handing out Board positions like sweets, if you are qualified enough to be offered one; you are qualified enough to excel. No Board is going to take a huge risk on an unqualified candidate simply because she is flavour of the month.  While gender based quotas are not popular as a solution, I thought I’d defend them on several grounds:

Here are my top 3 reasons why Quotas Can be a Useful Temporary Measure

1. Women have historically been fed the line that if enough of us enter the workforce, then equal representation will ‘trickle up’. This is just not happening. Women have made up at least half of all university graduates in Western countries for the last 20 years and we are not reaching ‘the top’ in any greater numbers. Organisations can no longer say they are truly meritocratic if only the male half of their initial intake is making into senior ranks. Quotas may be the best temporary measure we need to introduce enough senior women into the most upper echelons. From here senior women can act as role models and affect the transformative culture change that 21st century organisations desperately need.

2. Ironically, the presence of more women around a senior table allows any individual woman to be heard more as individuals. I, perhaps like you, have attended meetings where I was the only woman. When you speak as the only woman, its very easy for men to perceive your comment as ‘That’s the way women see it’ rather than “That’s they way Suzanne sees it.” Having more women around the table makes it easier for each woman to speak up, without feeling the pressure of being representative of her entire gender. One woman is a token, two is a conspiracy but three women paradoxically are seen as individuals. A quota would help ensure the ‘cheese’ does not have to stand alone.

3. The presence of at least 3 women at Board level has been correlated with so many positive benefits ranging from higher profitability, increased reliability of financial reporting to more satisfied customers and employees. How does the mere presence of women affect these areas? Simple, by limiting group think which enhances corporate governance. Research shows women on Boards are more likely than their male colleagues to take notes,  do the reading and even attend Board meetings. They ask the ‘obvious’ questions that no one else asks. All this leads to more robust management practices and lowers the risk of group think. Women are not better Board members than men, but they bring different skills and it is these skills that will push organisations past the ‘business as usual’ model that must change.

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  • gwenrhys

    Suzanne – agree with your comments.  Historically very little (dare I say nothing) changed for women until there was legislation.  The enlightened will always be ahed of the curve,  but making something obligatory by law forces the change.

  • Female Director

    There will be a dreadful backlash against women in quotas are implemented.  I do wish you ladies who love writing about this stuff and self promoting yourselves would get real.   Every time you make this kind of call, you make it worse for the women like me who are making it ON MERIT.  Yes, we are getting there so shut up and let us get on with it. 

    • sdoylemorris

      I completely agree that women should be promoted on merit, and delighted to hear that you are making such good in roads in your career. However, we cannot look at  all leaders in orgs and assure ourselves that every white man got there on merit alone. To ignore the idea of quotas also assumes that all women that have been overlooked for senior positions before had simply not been good enough. With the numbers of ambitious and highly educated women exiting from middle management being good enough is clearly not the main problem.