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Room at the top

Written by Ryan McChrystal on Thursday, 22 January 2015. Posted in Interviews

Is 2015 finally the year to take quotas seriously as a means of getting more women into senior positions?

Room at the top

This month, Germany joined France, Italy and some Nordic countries in introducing quotas for women on corporate boards. The moves have been welcomed by some: there’s a lot of evidence suggesting the approach really does work, at least in Europe.

The UK has a real problem with equality at the top: men still overwhelmingly occupy the most senior positions. The government has its own voluntary target of 25% female directors on the FTSE 100 by the end of next year and it looks well on target. However, this is only a very small range of companies and many are concerned that 25% is too soft a target. Some still say that politicians should put their own house in order first before they can make any genuine strides to solving the problem at board level. After all, how many women are on any party’s front bench?

Women are very slightly more than 50% of the global population and they have been estimated to control about 70% of global spending as the key household decision makers in this regard. Women are equally as driven and talented as men and we need to see more of them at the top. But how? In the UK, there has been a lot of talk about quotas but so far it has mainly been hot air and the idea has never really gotten off the ground. Is now the time to adopt quotas and tackle the gender imbalance at the top once and for all?

 

"Let 2015 be the year of quotas"Professor Dianne Bevelanderdirector of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations

Quotas, however unpopular in certain circles, remove the option for procrastination and excuses. They rapidly increase the participation of women in areas of social endeavour where power is present and dominant coalitions exist that have excluded women historically. They also create the tipping point that fundamentally and irrevocably changes the landscape.

For the last two decades we have been talking about gender-balanced leadership. The time has come to stop talking and to take decisive action. Although the benefits of diversity for strategic thinking, innovation and greater engagement of knowledge workers are widely accepted, amplifying the needed diversity through significantly increased participation of women remains nascent.

 Let us not rehash the tired stories suggesting ‘quotas will prevent the best person from getting the job’ or that ‘quotas will stigmatise women as only getting the job because of gender rather than qualification’. Take a look at senior appointments and ask yourself: “does the best person always get the job or does the well-networked member of the dominant coalition get the job because they have enough of the right competencies?” My ardent desire is that we stop blaming women and focus on creating an ecosystem in which both genders thrive. I say: let 2015 be the year of quotas.

"Female workers should help each other," Professor Christine Naschbergerprofessor of HR management, Audencia Nantes School of Management

Women’s nature is not adapted to the boardroom. Women become pregnant and cannot be relied on to be present in-company when it counts. Women only get top jobs so that some sort of equality can be seen to be respected. These are just some of the views that persist where women and work are concerned. For some people the answer to such prejudice is a quota system. For others, imposing quotas simply serves to strengthen the stereotypes they are supposed to combat.

Even among researchers into the subject of women’s access to the boardroom there is no consensus on the question. Some see quotas as the solution; others say they serve to place less qualified and experienced female profiles in positions of responsibility beyond their skill sets. Within firms, it is just as polarised. 

Research shows that women continue to get a rougher deal in terms of career advancement. Quotas can be one way of changing this but progress needs to be made on three levels: government, business and society. Work schedules need to be more flexible so giving women a greater chance to balance home and office life. And more firms should set up specific women’s networks which encourage female workers to help each other to reach career goals. 

About the Author

Ryan McChrystal

Ryan McChrystal

In a previous life McChrystal wrote about asset management in the Middle East. A history and politics graduate from the north of Ireland, he now focuses his efforts a little closer to home. When he's not knee-deep in journalism McChrystal fancies himself as a bit of a globetrotter. In the summer of 2014 he completed his second US road trip, spanning the east coast, but Americans will be glad to know he'll be giving them a break for a few years before returning. McChrystal is a music geek and proud parent of a dwarf rabbit named Dylan.

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