Quotas for women in boardrooms are simply disrespectful

By Luciana Cousin

Last week a decision was reached to introduce gender quotas in Europe, the UK and the US. The quotas will ensure that women are promoted to leadership positions and will also guarantee that women make up 40 % of all public and private boards.

Quotas for women in boardrooms are simply disrespectful

The decision is indicative of the 2009 proposed Affirmative Action Bill, which had caused uproar across business, religious and educational circles. Admittedly there has not been the same outpouring of sentiment as was seen in 2009, but there has been strong criticism against pushing women into becoming diversity tokens for the sake of political correctness. Mainly, by the women themselves.

The debate on the inclusion of women has been going on for decades.  As far back as November 11, 1997, the European Union’s High Court of Justice in Luxembourg approved Affirmative Action programmes giving women preferential treatment in the then 15 European Union countries.

Over the years there have been numerous studies and reports analysing the ‘disappointing numbers’ in ’the empowerment of women in leadership positions’.  For example, in 2009, a report issued by the Modern Language Association, stating that ‘Men are promoted more rapidly than women to full professor – regardless of women’s marital status or whether they have children‘; a report in April 2011 by McKinsey & Co claimed that ‘inadequate career development holds back female executives‘.

The stereotypical statements, ‘Women are unable to do the job’, ‘Women will have to take time off to have a family’, ‘Women are opting for a better work-life balance’, ‘Women cannot make decisions; they are too emotional/passive’ have become so entrenched into the business culture that they have become tenets for many CEOs.  Just last week, Shaun Rein, in the Forbes article Why Men Don’t Promote Women More stated that women were not promoted ’Because women aren’t pushy enough’. Most women will disagree with that statement; it is more a case of women being pushed back when they ask for promotions. Empirically, the higher up the corporate ladder women climb, the fiercer and more intense it becomes.

The corporate consciousness is that a woman, who adopts male behaviours (aggressive, arrogant and competitive) in order to succeed, is viewed as a woman with personality problems, and if she is feminine, she is viewed as passive.  Given that background, a woman has little chance of success when competing with her male counterparts for promotion in to the upper echelons of business. For women, it really is a lose-lose situation.

There is also the underlying cognizance that it is women that need to be fixed rather than fixing an infrastructure and mentality that is out-dated, and eradicating once and for all the invisible barrier or glass ceiling that does not allow for women to compete equally with men.

Lord Davies’ report Women on Boards (February 2011), is against using quotas as an answer to the problem. In the report, recommendations to reach a minimum of 25% female representation by 2015, are clearly defined; however the first Board target for all new appointments from March 2011 to be 2/3 male, 1/3 female, effective from the publication of this report, has not been met. According to Edge on Line, while there has been some positive steps in the right direction, as of  August 2011, there were still be 14 FTSE 100 companies with all-male boards.

The financial sector is also being shaken up due to Europe’s internal markets commissioner Michel Barnier‘s plan that will enforce quotas to increase the number of women sitting on bank boards.

During the last thirty years there has been a growing public recognition that empowering women would increase social, economic and political equality, yet progress has been slow as evidenced by the  Catalyst’s 2008 survey whose key findings include:

  • Women seem to be paid for proven performance—women who changed jobs two or more times post-MBA earned $53,472 less than women who rose through the ranks at their first job.
  • In contrast, men seem to be paid for potential—men who had moved on from their first post-MBA job earned $13,743 more than those who stayed with their first employer.
  • Across all career profiles, men were more likely to reach senior executive/CEO positions than women; in the most proactive category, 21% of men advanced to leadership compared with 11% of women.

The problem is that gender equality tackles the very heart of our patriarchal society and threatens the male business paradigm that has been in existence for centuries.

Currently, diversity and corporate governance underlined by political correctness is driving the Government gender equality initiatives. Government-enforced quotas are an easy way out of the problem but do we really want government to be so involved in private business?  It will only serve to exasperate the situation rather than fix it. And quotas do not fix the problem of providing workable and sustainable provisions for child care. Considering that 45% of the European work force is female, and women still have primary responsibility for child rearing, this needs to be given top priority.

When people are given promotions, university places or political positions based solely on their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and age rather than on merit, ability and skill, the political, academic and business infrastructures will inevitably break down.  We have seen this happen when affirmative action was used with other minority groups.

The Norwegians applied quotas in 2006 and an article by Spiegel Online (February 2, 2011) reported that when Norway introduced a law in 2006 stipulating that women had to make up 40 percent of the boards of publicly traded companies, it was hailed as a huge step forward. Now researchers are taking stock, and the effects of the quota appear to be mixed. The article concludes by saying that most companies were not adversely affected by the quota law but it hasn’t done much good, either.

Of course it has not done much good. What the gender quotas will do is actually marginalise women even more. What woman, or man, for that matter, wants to be promoted under the banner of enforced quotas rather than because they have the skills, experience and talent?  So what really changes?  Not much. Now women can look forward to a new reality of enforced quotas undermining women’s achievements, success, talents, skills and abilities and reinforcing the notion that women are too weak to get on boards based on their ability.

Gender equality is about a cultural change that will affect future generations and that requires, in part, educating men as well as women. It demands that business must let go of the antediluvian misconceptions about women, and women in business. It is about empowering women to rise above glass ceilings, rather than breaking through them.

Luciana Cousin is working as a freelance consultant and has her own blog Business in High Heels.

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