Why David Gonski is against quotas and why I wish he'd change his mind | Women's Agenda

Why David Gonski is against quotas and why I wish he’d change his mind

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a Women in Banking & Finance lunch. The guest of honour was David Gonski who was interviewed on stage by ANZ’s Amanda Gome. Their conversation weaved through his career, his advice to those seeking directorships and board positions, his mentors and the principles he tries to live by.

Halfway through the interview Amanda asked him about his position on quotas. Unsurprisingly, Gonski’s answer was considered and eloquent. He explained that he is against quotas but not against targets. Quotas, he said, are the start of a difficult wedge. He was adamant however that the lack of female representation is a problem and described boardroom tables dominated by men as “foolish”.

Rather than impose quotas to remedy this he argued the better thing would be “for us to see the problem and work towards a solution”. He described it as a “man problem not a woman problem” and was resolute that a lack of talent on the part of females is not the issue. “There is no doubt about it, female talent is, if not better, at least equal to, men.”

He spoke encouragingly about the Male Champions of Change, explaining that chief executives taking the lead on this issue is powerful. Without leadership from chief executives, companies will not make progress in this realm. He conceded change is taking time but said we have to reach the “tipping point”.

Eloquent and considered as his answer was, nevertheless, I disagreed. My personal opinion is that quotas are the mechanism by which that tipping point can be reached.

When an opportunity arose to ask questions I hesitated. The room was full of well-established banking and finance executives. The idea of questioning a leader of Gonski’s standing in that company was daunting but before I knew it, my hand went up, and soon enough the microphone was mine. To say I asked this question with some trepidation is an understatement:

“Based on the current rate of change we can expect to achieve gender parity in 300 years. In light of that and because as you said, there is no shortage of suitable female candidates in Australia, are quotas not the manmade solution to bring about change?”

His answer echoed his earlier reasoning; imposing quotas can make appointments seem artificial. It would better if the change occurred organically. I agree wholeheartedly with that but in my mind 300 years seems an awfully long time to wait.

I accept the argument that quotas can create an unhelpful perception of tokenistic female appointments but my belief is that the talent and ability of women is sufficient to overcome that. And the benefit of quotas is that more equal representation would become uniform. Once women reach the tipping point – at around 30% – gender becomes less relevant; they will be judged on their own ability. Currently women are not judged on their own ability – they are judged according to the notion of “merit” which is skewed towards the existing majority.

To my mind, unless quotas – or genuine targets – are imposed as a practical mechanism to achieve greater representation of women, change will not come. Or, it will come in 300 years which is practically the same thing as it never happening.

What is your view on quotas?

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