David Gonski is “diametrically opposed” to gender quotas.

David Gonski is “diametrically opposed” to quotas. Carol Schwartz says they’re the “only answer”.

Business leader David Gonski is “diametrically opposed” to the idea of legislating on gender quotas.

“Legislation should not be telling private companies who to put on their boards, nor how many of a particular type of person, or indeed what gender, geography or persuasion that person should be,” the ANZ Chairman says on the latest episode of the University of Melbourne’s podcast, The Policy Shop.

Gonski was joined on the podcast by author and academic Cordelia Fine, RBA board member and founder of the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, Carol Schwartz along with the regular host, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor Glyn Davis – and the businessman was clear on the impact he believed gender quotas would have.

Gonski believes gender diversity is “almost always a good thing,” but states gender quotas are ‘a slippery slope’ which pave the way for other groups to demand their own quotas. In the private sector, it is shareholders who should be making decisions about how to increase the representation of women in their own companies, he says.

A recent gender diversity report published by the Australian Institute of Company Directors shows that women remain significantly underrepresented on boards. The report shows that the percentage of women being appointed to ASX 200 boards has fallen in the first six months of 2017.

So far this year, there have been only 17 female appointments, compared to 40 male appointments, and there are still 13 companies with no women at all on their boards, including Bellamy’s Australia, which produces infant formula.

Disagreeing with Gonski, Carol Schwartz stated that quotas are the “perfect” solution to this underrepresentation. In order to tackle the underlying belief systems and unconscious bias that keep women from leadership roles, Schwartz says there needs to be a “paradigm shift which will actually move the dial.” For that, “the only answer is quotas,” she says.

While Schwartz agrees that it is important to encourage shareholders to focus on creating more gender diversity, there have to be consequences to not doing so. “If you have a policy that has no consequences, then who’s going to follow it?” she asks.

Schwartz says quotas need not aim for exact gender parity every time, “that is way too rigid,” she says. Instead, she proposes a “quota for men of 40 per cent, a quota for women of 40 per cent, and 20 per cent floating.”

In 2015, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon introduced a bill so that this 40/40/20 formula would become mandatory for all Australian government appointments, but it was rejected.

Professor Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne, put forward a social justice argument in favour of quotas. She said that based on U.S. data, women and minorities are more compassionate, other-minded and egalitarian, and also tend to take greater account of the welfare of employees, communities and the environment.

“We can have debates within the business community about whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but I think from the outside as a citizen we would all want the kinds of decisions being made at those board levels to be more reflective of the concerns, interests and values of the community at large.”

Fine also points out that contrary to what many believe, it is not women’s lack of confidence or ambition that keeps them from senior leadership positions.

Drawing on research from her latest book, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds, she says that women often do not put themselves forward because they have lower expectations of success, fewer role models to look up to, and perceive themselves to have less support in their organisations.

Despite disagreement between Gonski, Schwartz and Fine on how to get more women in senior leadership positions, all are optimistic that there will be positive change in women’s representation in business in the future.

“When you have leaders like Justin Trudeau and Macron, who are saying this is now  21st century and we need a different type of leadership… absolutely I’m confident it will happen” notes Schwartz.

Singled out by iTunes as ‘new and noteworthy’ The Policy Shop is a public policy podcast hosted by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. Past guests have included Germaine Greer, Peter Singer and Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton. Listen to the podcast below, or search ‘The Policy Shop’ on iTunes to subscribe.

This was co-written with Eoin Hahessy. 

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