The case against quotas: How to meaningfully boost the number of women on boards and in senior executive roles

22 Feb 2013

Quotas. The very mention of the word at a lunchtime discussion panel or at a dinner party tends to polarise views. And that's because the notion of introducing quotas to boost the numbers of women on boards and in senior executive roles is the result of frustration and desperation.

A glance at the figures for women on ASX200 boards and in executive roles justifies the despair. In 2004, 8.6% of board roles were occupied by women. It's currently 15.2%. A quarter of the ASX200 boards still do not have a single female member, although it's encouraging to see Fortescue Metals joining the fold today. Merely 3.5% of current ASX200 chief executives are women, and women make up about 8% of senior executive positions. Despite Australian women being among the most educated in the OECD, gender equity at senior leadership levels is occurring at a glacial pace.

But here's why quotas are not the answer.

Quotas are the antithesis of appointments on merit. Quota appointees are forever tainted with doubt, both within their own minds and in the minds of others, as to whether they truly deserved the role. Feminists have worked too hard over the last century to now settle for the condescending baggage that accompanies quotas.

Quotas are artificial constructs and appointees under quotas are not the result of organic internal cultural change; rather, they are tokens installed on the guise of change. For cultural change to be lasting and truly beneficial, it must be the result of organic reforms, top down. Pretending all's well solely because women have been appointed is a patronising house of cards doomed to fail.

Gender equality is not the only leadership challenge facing organisations. What about cultural and religious diversity, frequently lacking in leadership positions? What about people with disabilities? Are we to introduce quotas to combat these equally important diversity issues? Of course not. It's no way to foster healthy, successful leadership that takes people with you. Leadership qualities emerge from inside out, they're not skin-deep.

So if quotas are the wrong path, what else can be done to boost the number of women in senior leadership positions? Here are two suggestions.

Let's make a definitive business case for appointing more women leaders.

Businesses will voluntarily embrace appointing women on merit when it benefits the bottom line. As Women's Agenda recently told us, Israeli research indicates that organisations with boards comprising at least three women generate higher profits. There was no mention of the women being appointed under quotas.

In Norway, however, where since 2004 women have mandatorily comprised 40% of board appointees for all public liability limited companies, studies have found that those firms have generally decreased in value, and profits have declined, arguably as a result of the relative inexperience of the quota-driven appointees.

We need extensive local research on the profitability and growth of firms with women on their boards and in senior executive roles. This is precisely the credible data that will powerfully make the business case for positive change.

Let's broaden the criteria for "merit".

Male senior executives more often than not are cardboard cut-outs: accountants or engineers, drawn from operations, finance or strategic divisions of the business. Since when did these skillsets necessarily make for the best leaders? When applicants are being considered on "merit", it's easy to look for replicas of the person they're replacing, rather than considering broader skills and life experiences.

Small business management, retail sales, marketing and communications, human relations and legal are also important areas of experience that contribute to a rounded candidate. Not to mention someone who has taken time off to travel, who volunteers, who speaks a different language, who has studied something totally out of left field, and who enjoys exotic hobbies. The most successful leaders are interesting people who can empathise with and inspire their employees to greater productivity.

Women undoubtedly have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality on boards and in senior executive positions. But the way to achieve meaningful change is not through lazy quick fixes such as quotas.

Kate Ashmor

Kate Ashmor runs her own law firm, Ashmor Legal, focusing on conveyancing, wills, power of attorney and trademarks. When she's not chasing a pre-schooler, speaking at a conference or tweeting, she serves as Chair of Caulfield Park Bendigo Bank. She's a past president of Australian Women Lawyers and Women's Agenda's chief legal columnist.

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Twitter: @KateAshmor

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