Should gender quotas be introduced to the boardroom?

Written by
Changeboard Team

13 Jun 2014

13 Jun 2014 • by Changeboard Team

The introduction of gender quotas

The glass ceiling / the sticky floor for women in the workplace is a subject that comes up time and time again.

It appears that the UK isn’t alone in facing this problem or thinking of ways to combat it. Germany, France, Spain and Italy have all been recently implementing or at least considering mandatory quotas for women on boards, and Norway has had quotas in place for several years.

Positive discrimination or real career success?

Quotas are a contentious issue. Do women want more equality in the workplace? Absolutely. But do they want to reach the top just because they are a woman? This is where opinion is mixed.

It's a great achievement to get promoted thanks to hard work and success. But it's another to move up the ranks purely because you’re a woman and your company has to fill a quota. This form of discrimination is unpopular amongst many women who want to achieve based on their own merit, including politician Ann Widdecombe who said she would be "grossly insulted" to get a job due to a quota. So what's the answer?

Where have quotas been successful?

Before we dismiss quotas, let’s not forget that they have been highly successful in countries like Norway. In 2008, the country set a new global record thanks to gender quotas. 40% of its non-executive directors were female - the highest proportion in the world.

"A woman comes in, a man goes out. That's how the quota works; that's the law," said Norwegian politician Kjell Erik Øie. "Very seldom do men let go of power easily. But when you start using the half of the talent you have previously ignored, then everybody gains." It’s worth having a read of this article in the Guardian for some success stories.

Alternative to quotas

So quotas aside, what other options are there? Well, one possibility is to introduce targets, rather than quotas. Most companies have sales targets, so why don’t we have targets related to diversity? This gives organisations something to aim for and puts some pressure on them to boost gender equality, without enforcing strict quotas. Longer term targets would also aim to encourage companies to develop female talent from the beginning of their career so that they can reach top level positions in future. Short-term targets may prevent this from happening as the effects would need to be more immediate.

As well as some kind of target, there also needs to be more education within organisations about the business case for diversity. There is evidence that shows having more women at board level has a positive effect on the bottom line, as well as bringing more ideas to the table. The CEO may be really bought into the idea but this attitude needs to filter down to middle management who must understand the real benefits that having a more diverse team can bring. If the managers on the ‘front line’ aren’t convinced of the benefits, the pledge for diversity will remain on paper, but not take place in practice.

Companies need to support future female leaders

Good female talent can be difficult to find, especially at senior level, so it’s also important that employers mentor and support future female leaders in their organisations. More equal parental leave is also needed if we want women to realistically be able to reach board level positions, and hopefully Nick Clegg’s plans around this will have a positive impact, but this will take time.

Equality within 60 years?

Although many women will find targets preferable to quotas, the time may come where more drastic action has to be taken. Andrea Schauer, the head of Playmobil in Germany, said that the success in Norway highlights this: "We've been talking about getting more women into management for almost ten years. Not much has happened. In that same amount of time Scandinavia has gone in a completely different direction. I ask myself, 'are things going badly in these economies or are they doing well?' I think they're doing well and they've chosen to go with the quotas."

How long do we leave it until we say enough is enough? A report commissioned by the Government Equalities Office predicts that at the current rate of progress it could take six decades for women to gain equal representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. The introduction of targets would at least pave the way for change, and gauge how willing businesses are to shake up their boardrooms. The benefits of a more diverse management team are well documented. Can we really afford to wait another 60 years for equality?