This guy says quotas may be last chance to rectify discrimination

27 Feb 2013

Is there anything sincerely wrong with quotas for women on boards? Not really. The benefits are pretty obvious and long-lasting.

At its core, quotas are designed to rectify discrimination and a lack of pathways to leadership for women. They offer the fastest way to achieving gender equity on boards. While Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg might say that women need to "lean in", thought-leader Avivah Wittenberg-Cox notes that there also needs to be a reach-out mentality in business too.

We've been discussing gender equity for a long time, but we're failing to get much momentum in business. There's an over-representation of women in middle-management, the gender pay-gap is still large and impacting female graduates, but women are far more educated than men. This issue is very confusing, because there should be more women in senior management and on boards.

If this were a generational issue, women should have made further gains in leadership and management by now. Women are the majority of university graduates, and internationally women are leading the charge towards postgraduate education and achieving PhDs. We can't use time as an excuse, because we've given it time and it hasn't yielded enough of a result, an idea echoed by Joe Hockey.

Quotas benefit everyone. They're the leading tool for breaking up elite circles. When thinking of CEOs and board directors, the stereotype is of a white middle-aged man. Diversity yields the best results, the most effective organisations capitalise on a range of skills and experiences. So why haven't Australian companies tried to access more female talent in leadership?

If we want fast action, opportunity and results -- quotas make sense. The dismal state of gender equity in corporate Australia is frightening, under 10% across the ASX. Norway is held up as an example of board equity done right where a 40% quota was introduced and the gender diversity change was short and sharp. The impact remains, and it has garnered support from the EU overall and individual nations such as France and Italy. Naturally, board gender diversity differs from country to country and context is essential in garnering the best results. Organisations like the UK's 30 Percent Club ask male chairs to voluntary bring the representation of women to 30% on their boards.

However, without providing the appropriate education, skills and tools to companies, there will naturally be issues with quotas. We hear that quotas are belittling and those candidates are tainted with a brush of whether they should really be there. But women appointed via a quota system are close to the position anyway, and may have previously been overlooked. Women account for half the population, the quota gives them an opportunity.

The best advocates of gender equity in business and leadership are women or men with daughters. Capitalising on this connection is important, because when we all realise what the impact of doing very little on this issue is the faster we'll be able to help the girls of tomorrow.

Our current scenario is ok, for now. Companies are creating their own targets. Concerns by Workplace Gender Equality Agency Director Helen Conway about the lack of movement by business are well-noted. The call has been made by directors, male and female, that a quota of some level may be necessary at some point. As a last measure, quotas would be used to rectify the structural discrimination that exists in many companies. The result of quotas is not to create female dominance in leadership, but to resolve some of the issues around access – by accepting that diversity in leadership is ultimately essential.

Quotas don't exist to spin tokenism, they're there to support opportunity and drive change.

Conrad Liveris

Conrad Liveris is a workforce diversity specialist

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