· Features

Are quotas the answer to the gender diversity problem?

Cherie Blair, a QC and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, has called for workplaces to be more gender-balanced. Will introducing quotas be effective in addressing corporate gender imbalances at senior level?

Her advocacy for quotas to redress the gender imbalance in the workplace is based on direct experience of introducing gender quotas in the Labour party’s shortlists of prospective candidates.

Today, increasingly few would argue against women attaining a more equal share of leadership positions in all walks of life. The debate does appear at least to have moved on from ‘why do we need to change?’ to ‘how do we best effect change?’. The broad focus – from the 30% Club through to Cherie Blair – certainly appears to be on accelerating the pace of change in achieving greater gender diversity.  

As this change can be framed in socio-economic, philosophical, ethical and political terms, views about how to move forward are bound to differ. The appeal of quotas for substantially increasing the proportion of women (average or otherwise) in leadership positions is based on understandable frustration with the current pace of change.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments against quotas and in favour of voluntary measures that emphasise sustainability over urgency. Any imposed redistribution of power is likely to falter if there are not enough suitably qualified women, resulting in an over-utilised elite, such as the ‘golden skirt’ phenomenon in the Nordic countries, or undermining backlash (for example the glass ceiling) from men who feel passed over. 

The 30% Club’s research showed that quotas are likely to heighten senior women’s sensitivity to tokenism, which might make them less likely to put themselves forward for high-profile roles. More controversially, quotas can be seen to cut across the meritocratic principles on which organisations believe their corporate competitiveness is founded. This argument is the most interesting in that it opens up a political minefield of debate about who defines ‘merit’ and how that definition is enacted.

So how to get the best of both worlds – rapid and sustainable change? Generational shifts in attitudes towards careers combined with aging workforce demographics are likely to force change over the medium-term. Committed organisations already apply a softer version of quotas in the form of internal management targets and the idea is to change expectations of what comprises a diverse team, function, business or organisation. Individual managers are not penalised but must explain why the make-up of their immediate area diverges from a pre-defined level of gender diversity. This fixes responsibility at a local level, but also invites the well-worn ‘lack of supply’ explanations for missing targets, such as Glencore’s explanation for its all-male board of directors

The 30% Club’s recent research shows that lack of supply – particularly at the top of organisations – is not really the issue. Senior women sitting one or two levels below executive committee level, despite being outnumbered roughly 4:1 by men, are two times less likely to be promoted and four times less likely to leave than their male peers.

Increasing demand for senior women – through an authentic personal connection with the benefits of and need for a genuinely diverse leadership team – is far more likely to deliver results. Men’s genuinely inclusive behaviour is what encourages women that they will be valued and able to make a worthwhile contribution. Collectively, this sets the tone for open-mindedness and appreciation of difference, which in turn leads to even greater inclusiveness.

According to Cranfield's research, only 30% of FTSE 100 organisations disclose whether they have policies aimed at increasing women’s participation in senior management and only 13% have measurable objectives. It will be interesting to see whether ‘going public’ on gender diversity targets, as Lloyds Banking Group did with 40% of their top 8,000 jobs being occupied by women by 2020 target, will inject some competitive edge both in the short- and medium-term.  

Rachel Short is a director at business psychologists YSC. Her areas of interest include diversity and individual, team and organisational effectiveness.

Want to learn more about common gender myths in the workplace?

HR magazine is hosting an online panel discussion that explores common myths and how to place gender diversity at the heart of corporate culture.

HR magazine deputy editor Katie Jacobs will be joined by KPMG partner Melanie Richards, Cranfield University School of Management professor of women and leadership Susan Vinnicombe and Norton Rose Fulbright global director of people and talent development Andrew MacEachern.

The debate takes place at 1pm on Monday, 21 July, and is free to watch. All you need to do is register at: Getting to the heart of gender diversity