Quotas – Can I change my mind?

Recently, I inadvertently ending up in a conversation with an angry bloke about quotas on boards and why women don’t get to the top. He was adamant it is because they don’t want to, nor are they qualified or competence enough to and if we introduced quotas we would end up with women not suitable or capable of the job in hand just to meet some stupid target! Phew, answer that one Diva! I am sure you know that I did!

However, my view on quotas has gone full circle. If you had asked me how I felt about them 10 years ago I would have been vehemently against such positive action for all the well reasoned arguments people use – it will upset the men and alienate them rather than get them on side; It will promote women not ready for the position and thus work against us as opposed to for us; it will be seen as tokenism and the women in question will not be taken seriously and so on, but today I see the situation very differently so why have I changed my mind?…

As a coach and innovator I recognise that some situations need a serious intervention to create dissonance with the status quo and frame breaking change. Getting women to their rightful place, sharing the decision-making process in the corporate, political, educational and legal arena is an example of frame breaking change and this level of change cannot be done incrementally, it demands a serious shift and serious shifts do not happen organically.

Sometimes we have to accept a short term change to achieve a permanent one and I think introducing quotas for a 30% female board representation is one of those. The quota only needs to be in place until the permanent change is embedded, but without it we are going to keep plodding along making little impact and giving the establishment more and more time to subvert the process.

We know it makes sense to have a more balanced boardroom, the business case is clear, over 80% of all consumer decisions are made by women, women make up over 50% of the population, girls outperform boys academically blah blah – the evidence is clear but and it’s a BIG but if we continue doing what we are doing this 30% target will get further and further away from us and what message does this send out to young girls? If they cannot see any women at the top why should they believe it is possible? Action speaks louder than words and if all we ever do is talk about it?…

For those token women out there that are at the top I salute you! You have worked hard and sacrificed much to get there but is that really the way it should be? Is that the message to our girls? Tokenism does not work, we need a posse of women or none, the pressure on the lone female is too much and one woman cannot be expected to represent her whole gender in every decision and move she makes!

In my opinion, we have to invade the top in groups if we are to impact the landscape, 30% is a start and to say the talent is not out there? Well do not even get me started on that one! The time for legislation is now, we need to be brave, stand up and be counted and know this is the right thing in the short term to get us what we want, what we deserve, what the next generation craves and what the western world needs – a more balanced view from the top.

I would love to hear your views on this, join the conversation please!



10 Comments on Quotas – Can I change my mind?

  1. I’m with you Jane. A couple of years ago I would have said a big no to quotas but it is about redressing an imbalance. If you have too many greenfly in the garden you redress the balance by introducing ladybirds.
    Anyway, what’s the worse that can happen? We get a few women that underperform – and all the guys on boards are perfect? Aye right!

  2. Hear! Hear! Why oh why must women be perfect, it’s not a relevant argument. I’ve written on this many times but very little changes until legislation forces it to. Without legislation we’d still probably be trying to get the vote and landladies and landlords could still have signs in their windows saying ‘no blacks or Irish’. If it’s right, it’s right. And saying that maybe some ‘not very good’ women may end up on boards seems to presuppose that all the men are wonderful. I doubt that very much. We’ll know we have full gender equality when our senior posts are 50% women and 50% of them as rubbish as the current incumbents…
    PS http://www.changingpeople.co.uk/2012/quotas-for-women-on-boards-yes-yes-yes/ the article I referred to above.

  3. I hve dithered for a long time Jane but was persuaded last year by Dr Ruth Sealey who gave a presentation at the Co-Operative Women’s 2020 event. Her research shows that nothing much has changed and she is absolutely passionate that we can no longer wait for thins to continue to change at the same rate. I now feel able to argue just as passionately, based on the evidence available.

  4. Philip A Birch // September 5, 2012 at 1:36 pm // Reply

    Extremely interesting piece and comments. Thanks Jane. I am stil not a fan of quotas. I have spent 20 years in corporate senior positions and my bias remains – it is about merit. Quality. I totally agree that the current situation must change but forcing quota levels, even with thepotential for removing the forced regulation in the future, strikes me as a forced democracy. I amnot sure thatthere is a credible example of this working over time? It may take longer but we must change the system of “establishment” itself,in my opinion, and this means socially,politically, democratically and with true diversityof all “types” and creeds, genders and races. Are you suggesting that we have enough qualified women already waiting,willing and able to deliver a forced quota? do you have a timeframe within which we should accommodate this new input of skills,personalities, conditions and infrastructure? As you know, shareholders like predictable environments with quantifiable fiscal returns. How many would be happy with a forced quota introduction of x000 women into their businesses? I am a firm believer and supporter of more feminine control and influence. My work I think supports this. Quotas, however, have not yet gained my conviction.

    • I am still very much against this, as if we have a quota we will like Scandinavia have a Board who agree with the men and are selected because they will bend. Yes, it is difficult but Board positions should be on skills and quality not whether we are a woman. This would not be democratic and I agree with nearly all the points made by Philip Birch. Whenever I have missed out an Executive Board position, a paid one, the others are easy to have, it has always been that other women on the Board did not want me there, as they protect their position. It is amazing to see this, but sadly very true. As I know from my days as National President of BAWE, some women just do not want the position amongst a load of men, so in some cases this is up to us.

  5. Joyce Duncan // September 6, 2012 at 2:29 pm // Reply

    At last some brave women who are willing to say YES to quotas. I am sure it’s not what any of us want really but we could be waiting forever to gain parity with men on this issue.

    Whilst I agree with Philip that it should be about merit, it’s currently not about merit, its about patronage. Philip’s assertion that there are not enough well qualified and willing women out there is belittling . He should read the bios of Tanya Castell and Sarah Smart, they are some of the capable and willing.

    If shareholders were to look at the US example, then they will see that companies with a significant proportion of women on their boards are outperforming all others.

    Quotas will provide a means to equality, then its up to us.

  6. The quotas are reported to be working successfully in Norway. There was a very interesting point made by Maggie Pagano, former business editor of the Independent newspaper, in a Radio 4 interview last year. She said she was a convert to quotas and believed one of the problems was “invisible women”. She said that headhunters tended to look for board members in areas where there are fewer women represented, whereas if they were to look in areas such as HR and Marketing where women are well represented, many capable women would be found.

    I heard a male Newsnight panellist a few months ago make a point about positive discrimination in favour of women – he said, “There’s been positive discrimination in favour of men for ages. It’s called ‘the old boys’ network’.

    Personally I’m in favour of quotas. It brings much needed balance to business.

  7. great to see this discussion and read all the comments,my view still remains intact though. I know the talent is out there and if we do not legislate for change we cannot address any of the issues Philip so eloquently states. The Hilary Devey programme Women at the Top on BBC2 last night strenghthened the case for me.
    We are in danger of switching off our young girls before they even get on the ladder when we show them how little progress we have made.

  8. Philip A Birch // September 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm // Reply

    In response to an above comment. I must have been misunderstood unless merit and quality are belittling. There is of course, an “old boys” network and I am as vehemently against this as any forms of barriers to entry. When does networking and referral become nepatism? If you are good enough, you should be given the opportunity to prove it. Irrespective of gender.

  9. Well argued Jane. You have a good business case for frame-breaking change and one which I will articulate with more authority now. I also agree with Jane Woods – no-one (well hopefully not very many people anyway) looks back and argues that legislating for racial equailty was bad for society.

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