Sector News

To quota or not to quota? That is the question.

April 27, 2015
Diversity & Inclusion

Borderless Founding Partner and Managing Director Els De Cremer and Consultant Rosalie Harrison weigh in on the global debate about establishing quotas for female Board Members…

Norway, Germany and a number of other European countries have enacted quotas to ensure representation of women on Corporate Boards. And while these initiatives have their champions, the move has left some women and men in other countries questioning its objectives, motives and outcomes.

Are you in favor of quotas?

Els:  Not intrinsically, but I am a realist.  Companies don’t easily change their ways. If I take the broader topic of women in leadership positions and I see the glacial speed at which society is progressing then I do believe quotas serve a purpose. They fix attention to the issue and require an immediate result. I don’t think the result is perfect, but issues of diversity are hardly ever discussed if companies are not forced to confront them. So, I’m not a natural believer in quotas, but after having observed for so long that the score has not changed, I think they are necessary.

Rosalie:   Yes, I have a bit of a different perspective coming from the States, but possibly not a different result.  In the US, successful women are generally not in favor of quotas for the fear that women will be seen as tokens. Perhaps this is a legitimate fear, but it is my sense that women in high positions are already seen as tokens and must always strive to prove otherwise.  So, I’m very glad that Europeans are taking a step forward on this issue, because it has created an awful lot of discussion, and American companies tend to respond to public opinion — especially their consumer base. The more discussion there is about this issue the better. 

For me, the other benefit of mandatory quotas would be to put a spotlight on the selection process that takes place for all Board members. Board selection has historically been a very informal, “who do you know” old-boy system, which does not necessarily bring the most qualified people — regardless of gender.  If you are suddenly required to bring in a woman, you are most likely not going to be able to find her through those informal channels. This means companies are going to have to put in place a more sophisticated selection process and perhaps use outside third-party help to do so. In the end, I think this will increase the quality and capabilities of all Board members.

Let’s go deeper into that perception of tokenism. Isn’t that a big hindrance?

Els:  The perception of tokenism is a problem for any minority regardless of quotas. If you’re on a Board with multiple men and you are the only women, unfortunately you may be looked upon as the “token dress”. You may feel as if you have to work twice as hard just to prove you’ve earned your place, but it should never prevent you from seizing the opportunity.

Rosalie:  I think a qualified woman, or any minority, who comes onto a leadership position can dispel the tokenism issue very quickly by being a high performer. So, for me, getting a seat at the table, and using a quota to do it, would not in any way inhibit me from joining that Board and proving, very quickly, that I’m not a token. I think any qualified person would do the same. I don’t really think that argument should be a hindrance against the use of quotas if the alternative is that women do not have a seat at the table.

Do you think Board quotas will lead to more diverse Senior Management teams?

Rosalie:  Studies have not shown that putting women on Boards through the implementation of quotas radically changes the opportunities for women deep within the organization. Just because you put a woman on a Board doesn’t mean she has the agenda, desire and capability to change the corporate culture and bring more diversity. Putting such an expectation on the shoulders of one female Board member is not realistic.

Els:  I agree. If an organization wants to promote diversity within its management, it has to look at the entire picture, from attracting women to retaining and developing them. I remember when years ago I resigned from my management position at a large multinational company. I had just had my first child at 36, and the senior VP, later to become the CEO of the company, told me in the exit interview, “Yes, well, I guess as a woman you can’t have it all.” Astonishing at the time but a great illustration of the then prevailing thinking. It’s no surprise that there is still not a single women on their Executive Committee even today!  Some companies give lip service to the topic; this will never bring about the necessary change.

Rosalie:  There is a famous quote that culture eats strategy for breakfast. It is applicable here. There are many companies that create well-meaning strategies, but if they don’t change their culture, and promote and hire people who support that culture, the strategy won’t be implemented. Some companies that are trying to get it right are even making sure that economic incentives are tied to building diverse teams. To support diversity, companies will have to stop doing the same old things that they were doing before. They may, for example, find it useful to work with third-party partners like Borderless. We think differently, so we help our clients think differently.

Els: Our company is women owned and women led. We are conscientious and take a personal interest in furthering the careers of women… even if it’s one hire at a time.

Learn more about Borderless Women on Boards℠.

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