Will Boardroom Quotas for Women Undermine Their Credibilty?

Update: I wrote this post some time ago but sadly nothing much has changed. I stand by my words.

If you read the many posts and comments on this topic you’ll find that most seem to think that mandatory quotas for women on boards will mean that any women on boards will be discredited. That because if the government is forced into action all women on boards will be merely tokenistic. That no woman appointed once mandatory quotas are in force will feel that she has earned her place on merit and is there by her own efforts.

Well I think that’s rubbish.(This is my polite version)

Yes, those who oppose gender equality will have a lot to say about the women appointed. It’ll be grist to their ‘women aren’t good enough’ mill.

They will be unlikely to be able to find women who fit their standard idea of what a good board member is because their standard idea is a male one. Clearly women will be sadly lacking in the penis department. So they will appoint tokenistic women to fill their quota and sit back and wait for them to fail. No winners there.

Those who are ambivalent will use it as a cop out if the women appointed aren’t ten times better than their male counterparts. “I never really thought it was a good idea… they can’t handle the cut and thrust of proper business”.

Never mind the thousands of so-so, just good enough but not brilliant men on boards already (well, we’re in a fine pickle and it wasn’t a majority of women who brought us to this); they are men so the same standards of comparison don’t apply. Just watch what happens when one (it’ll only need one) high profile woman fails:

“We knew they weren’t up for it. If we’d been allowed to appoint who we wanted this would never have happened.”

It has been the same story every time equalities legislation is enforced. We currently have a Government in the UK who likes the ‘free’ market and is today pledging at the CBI conference :

To make Government work faster by streamlining equality rules and legal red tape.

The Prime Minister also said opponents of planning decisions and policies would be given less time to apply for judicial review, face higher fees and see the chances to appeal halved.

He also said Equality Impact Assessments would no longer be compulsory, and consultation periods would be slashed.

The point is the market is not ‘free’, not if you don’t fit the male and white (and Eton?) mould. If leaving things alone worked we wouldn’t have such gender inequalities like men consistently earning more than women for the same jobs, or more women losing their jobs in the recession, or so few boards with women on them.

If you believe that women are inferior to men in some way then it makes sense; naturally boards with that attitude won’t be able to find enough good women.

But it may be that initially even very pro women boards will find it hard to get the calibre of female talent they want. Few women have been groomed for a place on the board in the way that many men are. It will take a bit of searching, effort, and some  encouragement and planning. Some companies are well placed for this, others will find themselves well behind if they have not been developing their female talent and introducing gender equality policies and practices.

And women have got to step up and make themselves available. I know, and am privileged to work with, many women who would be an asset to any board. In the same way that the poor old BBC couldn’t find a female expert the other month to talk about breast cancer (doesn’t that beggar belief?) companies have to broaden their horizons. The old way of recruiting will not work; they will have to cast their net wider.

If we are to move forward in this country then women should be as equally represented in powerful positions as are the men. Women and men bring different things to the board table and companies profit when those talents are utilised to the full. Check out Why Women on Boards? The Evidence

I know it’s almost de rigour to poke fun at the EU and their tedious regulations but in this case I hope it triumphs. I hope the twitter chat is true and that the headlines tomorrow read:

The EU has approved the proposals from justice commissioner Viviane Reding to have 40% of women on company boards by 2020.

If we hadn’t had equalities legislation in this country it would still be legal for B&B owners to put signs in their windows saying ‘No Blacks, No Irish’.  I have seen that in my life time. Sometimes you have to have have legislation to make people do the right thing.
What do you believe?

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This may also interest you- it’s an interview with Natalie Bennett leader of the Green Party which believes in mandatory quotas for women on boards.


Posted on November 19th, 2012 by

11 Responses to “Will Boardroom Quotas for Women Undermine Their Credibilty?”

  1. As a woman the idea of ensuring that boards include a set proportion of women seems intuitively fair … until one stops to consider other minorities. Should boards also ensure that at least 20% of directors are disabled … or that 10% is from an ehtnic minority .. or that at least one director is gay and one has undergone gender reassignment. And what about the protected characteristic of pregnancy? Should we ensure there is always a pregnant lady on the board?

    The truth is that quotas seem like a good idea so long as one is thinking about advancing the rights of women. If thinking about advancing equal opportunities for all quotas are revealed just as a way of expaning those who are privileged while ignoring true equality for all.

    • Jane says:

      Excellent point well made. And I’m very familiar with the ‘feminism is all about a middle class preoccupation’ argument (see Is No More Page 3 Really Advancing gender equality) But the categories you mention can be either gender and (in the main) the human race is divided into those 2 categories, men and women, so women are not a minority special interest group but half the population, regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, pregnancy and anything else.

  2. Tim Douglas says:

    The valid observation here is that women are NOT a minority who are simply underprivileged. They make up pretty much equal numbers, regardless of ethnic origin, sexual preferences or disabilities.

    However the broad proposition for supporting quotas is equally valid, regardless of the category of bias it aims to overcome. It seems men will not accept more women on Boards for the same reason white people will not accept more non-whites, able-bodies will not accept more disabled, straight-dressing heteros will not accept more LGBTs. If the status quo is hard to overcome when you represent 51% of the entire population, imagine how tough it is when you represent 20%, or 10%?

    For me, this argument says quotas for women are the priority ONLY because such a large number of them have been disadvantaged, and that includes women who have those other reasons for suffering inequality.

    The other valid point here is that there has been a lack of opportunity for enough women to have undertaken appropriate development work. It WILL be tougher to find women who have had the right experience and training, and we have to recognise that. The adoption of quotas should spur companies on to accelerate these opportunities amongst women. I’m sure it is also true that there are many men on Boards who are incompetent, but it doesn’t do any good for women’s rights (or the ecomony!) to continue such incompetence in the appointment process once quotas in obligatory.

    • Jane says:

      Thanks Tim- a helpful contribution to the debate. I do get cross when women are described as minorities but then in some arenas we are and that’s what we’d like to change! The EU proposal as I understand it is to come into effect in 2020 so plenty of time for organisations to look at its talented employees. Jane ;>)

  3. Roland says:

    There is a huge danger with quotas. I doubt if anyone would want a job or indeed to have a manager who was only there to make up numbers.

    Merit has to be the way forward. Equality in training and advancement is the better way forward so that the best person for the role gets the job.

    Imagine having a female surgeon who was not yet fully ready for the role but had to be employed to make up the numbers. Are you ready to have an operation now? Where does it all end?

    Equal rights for women surely means equal rights. A quota system is just the opposite. “Now dear here is a job for you because you’re a woman and we need an extra one to meet our quota!”

    • Jane says:

      Roland, how I disagree with you on this! No one is talking about employing incompetent women but it is time for businesses to be dragged into the 21st century; the majority will carry on with their patronising attitudes without legislation, just as women still wouldn’t have the vote if it had been left up to the majority to decide. Do you really think this will happen voluntarily? Or do you think that women are not up to the job-yet? Your equal rights comment implies that you think it’s OK as it is and that it’s women’s fault if they don’t proceed. How else can one explain the huge disparity? If you think it will happen out of goodwill how long do you think this will take? I for one am not prepared to wait any longer. Jane

  4. Roland says:


    This is a complex issue.

    I know many women who would not employ another woman as they prefer to work with men!!! Now there is a tricky one!

    How do you solve the problem? Only by education and real fairness.

    Just another thought:

    Why 40% – is that discrimination? By age 40 there are more women alive than men by a good margin!

  5. Ann Lewis says:

    I’m not conventionally religious, but I think the Church of England throws up some interesting parallels. When the General Synod voted for women priests, people who did not like the concept left the church, while others held their breath and waited for the token women to disappear. By 2006 women ordinands passed 50% of the total of new priests, and by 2010, around 25% of priests were women.

    I know this is set against a background of general decline in church attendance. My point is that sometimes you just have to get on and make change in order for it to prove its worth and become accepted. Now the same debate is taking place in relation to women bishops and we’ll see what happens.

    I honestly don’t know whether quotas will work. I can see both sides of the argument. My experience as an HR director suggests to me that there needs to be genuine debate in organisations about what women could bring to the boardroom. If people, men and women, have taken the time to arrive at a clear understanding of th need for change, then there is likely to be more willingness to embrace that change and make it work.

    Tokenism and setting people up to fail are both symptoms of resistance to change. And if we really want more women to bring their talent, skill and experience to the board room, we have to be ready to address other societal issues such as child and elder care, both of which still fall predominantly to women.

    A complex issue, as others have already said.

  6. Tim Douglas says:

    If we had accurate assessment processes and applied them expertly, we could eliminate bias at the point of selection. And we could use them with quotas, to ensure the selected candidate was competent to a minimum level required.

    But assessment and selection process are not a precise science. Even if they are considerably more sophisticated than a simple interview, they can only reduce subjectivity to a degree. They will (often) be subject to some degree of soclialised bias on the part of designers, administrators and assessors, which usually reflects whatever level of institutional bias exists within the organisation. But they are the best tools we have.

    And, of course, historically disadvantaged groups have missed significant development opportunities that would have been made available to them, if their organisations were truly fair. As Roland says, we must put that right. But if we then waited for the number of qualified women candidates to increase, we’d be writing off the careers of many women already in the workplace.

    Discussions about the potential benefits of female executives are an essential part of the remedial action organisations must take, to rid themselves of their bias. But it will not lead to a significant increase on its own, because history has shown that only force ultimately changes behaviour. That’s why the Equality legislation originated, starting with Equal Pay. Until then the bank I worked for refused to provide femail employees with preferential mortgages. Why? Because they’d get into difficulty paying the higher rate once they got married or had children, at which point they were required to resign anyway!

    We have wasted too many generations of talent. We cannot waste another one waiting for dinosaurs to change their scales!

    • Jane says:

      Thanks Tim for that HR perspective; your comments always add something useful and intelligent to the debate (and not just because I agree with them!)

      A few years ago I was asked to do some work in an organisation which had very few senior women; in fact walking into its offices was a bit like crossing the time continuum back to the 1960s. Men in suits, women as secretaries etc. What senior women they had left pretty quick, as did a high profile chap who was gay.

      One of my suggestions was that they get an independent expert in to look at their recruitment processes for exactly the reasons you outline. The only senior woman in the organisation sanctioned this. Off the record I was told the results showed a huge bias against any one who didn’t fit the traditionally conservative male, white, and straight mode. I asked formally for a copy of the report to use in my work in the organisation. It was refused. I encouraged other women in middle management to ask about it. They were refused as the report was ‘not helpful’. The only senior woman predictably left and the report never saw the light of day.

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