Why Quotas Are Bad & Dangerous: Oh PLEASE can we talk about outcomes? | Women's Agenda

Why Quotas Are Bad & Dangerous: Oh PLEASE can we talk about outcomes?

During a weekend blitz, one of those insanely satisfying exercises in which we shed approximately one third of the various items that clutter our home, I came across a pile of BRW magazines I have kept since working there. I flicked through hoping to find one issue in particular. How to be a CEO: A woman’s guide.

It was a cover story I pitched, researched and wrote in October of 2012. I interviewed nine female executives about their careers, their lives, their mentors, their role models and their views on women in leadership.

In the opening paragraph I described these women as statistical anomalies. Clever, formidably competent, extraordinarily accomplished, wholly meritorious, statistical anomalies.

Each of these women has scaled the corporate ladder to attain senior leadership positions or directorships in some of the country’s largest organisations. It makes them standouts in an environment where the top 200 companies on the Australian Securities Exchange employ women in just 8 per cent of positions in the top three layers of management and a mere five of them have a female chief executive.”

What struck me upon reading this piece back was how little has changed in the almost-three intervening years since I wrote it.  The “significant structural hurdles” that the executives agreed need to be dismantled to ensure senior female executives become the norm rather than the anomaly, remain. Paid parental leave, flexibility, entrenched bias in workplaces and affordable and accessible childcare are not nuts we’ve cracked. Not even close.

The subject of quotas, inevitably, came up in each of my interviews, which is what had me looking for the article in the first place. The reason the Q-word was on my mind is because rather quietly, in the last week of June, Senator Nick Xenophon introduced a private bill that seeks to achieve something resembling balanced representation on government boards. Radical, I know.

The cross-bench proposal, supported by Larissa Waters, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus seeks to mandate that 40% of seats on government boards be held by women, 40% by men and 20% unallocated. Rather than make 40% an ‘aspirational target’ as it is now, this bill would make it an obligation.

The Australian Government Boards (Gender Balanced Representation) Bill 2015 was necessary, Senator Xenophon said, given figures show just nine out of 18 boards met the Government’s target in 2013-14, compared to 13 boards which met the target in 2012-13.

“It’s concerning that there’s been an alarming slip in gender balance on government boards. This does not represent community expectations, or the fact that women make up 51 per cent of the Australian population,” the Senator said.

Whilst introducing the bill in parliament Xenophon made this observation:

“The business sector has made significant progress in terms of gender-balanced repres¬entation over the years, but there is still a leadership role for government in terms of promoting boards that are more representative of our society as a whole.

“While there appears to be no valid argument as to why this legislation should not be put in place … there are many arguments as to why it should.”

As logical as that sounds, and it does, it is unfortunately inaccurate. Arguments against balanced representation abound, regardless of their validity.

I can’t tell you how many events, panel discussions, interviews and conversations I have been privy to, which have turned to the Important Topic Of Why Quotas are Very Bad and Very Dangerous.

These discussions are almost always preceded by, or followed up with, an in-depth and sincere declaration about the importance of diversity and gender equality.

Am I the only one who struggles to reconcile these arguments? Am I alone in finding the distinction between quotas or targets or stretch goals increasingly futile?

To me, it seems straightforward. You either support gender balance or you don’t. And, if you support gender balance, then surely you support action to achieve it?

If you don’t view gender balance as a moral or economic imperative, then a target, a quota or any concerted effort to achieve gender balance will, obviously enough, be a baseless proposition. Which is fine, in my view, so long as you come out and say that.

If you’re happy and willing to deny your stakeholders the benefits of diversity, then own it. Tell them why you don’t need diversity. Why your homogenous leadership group can defy the evidence and produce better outcomes than a more diverse or “balanced” group.

On the flipside, however, if you consider gender balance to be a moral or economic imperative, how can you, in all seriousness argue against intervention? If you genuinely support gender diversity then isn’t the desired outcome more persuasive than the means of achieving it?

The ‘no quotas’ experiment is long-running and the results are convincing, unequivocal even. There are more men called David and Peter running or chairing companies in Australia than women leading companies. At the current pace of change we will have gender equal workplaces in 300 years, or by the year 2095 if we’re lucky. If we’re LUCKY!

Quotas were once viewed, optimistically, by many men and women as unnecessary. In time, women would rise to the top on their own merits, the positive thinking went. What self-respecting woman would want a promotion or an appointment through a quota, men and women alike asked?
Once upon a time, perhaps no one. Nowadays, however, a lot of women have changed their minds. Women like the IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, who says that without mandating change, change will not occur. 

Whilst quotas might not be ideal, nor is a “meritocracy” that consistently delivers vastly different outcomes for men and women. Without intervention, the current model certainly doesn’t deliver a level playing field.

Unless you believe that men called David, Michael and Peter are disproportionately more qualified to run companies than women?

Unless you believe that there are only 11 women in Australia capable of running an ASX200 company compared to 189 men?

Unless you believe there are only two Federal female politicians out of 19 who are suitably equipped for Cabinet?

The Q-word is loaded, as are conversations about tackling balanced representation in any sphere. Last week The Australian published two stories on Senator Xenophon’s Bill, which it’s worth noting the coalition has not responded to. (And before you ask, no, the Minister for Women has not weighed in.)

One story ran  with the headline “ASX Boss says quotas won’t achieve gender equality” and referred to the Male Champion of Change, Elmer Funke-Kupper’s submission in response to the proposed bill.  The second referred to an exhortation from Chief Executive Women president Diane Smith-Gander to not let semantics ‘distract from putting women on boards‘. 

Elmer Funke-Kupper’s submission is far more considered than simply saying “Quotas don’t work”, but he does make the point that the business community doesn’t support quotas. He was not available to comment but it’s an issue I would like to explore with him. The fine print between ‘targets’ and ‘quotas’ aside, how much longer will arguments against immediate action stand up?

Shareholders, particularly those of the powerful institutional variety, are increasingly reluctant to accept inaction in this realm. They have begun requesting explanations from companies failing to embrace diversity. It seems the body of evidence supporting the fact that gender equality improves performance, the same evidence Xenophon relied on to explain why government boards ought to be balanced, might well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The question I have for leaders is not whether they support quotas. It’s this. Do they support gender balance? If not, just say that and let’s have that conversation. If they do support gender balance, then I’m sure they won’t mind me saying that the time for talk is long, long gone. If they’re in, it’s time for action. Quotas, targets, stretch goals, call it whatever you like, the definitive test is whether the numbers are shifting.  

And, finally, for the love of progress, please don’t feign interest in equality and then baulk at the suggestion of action to actually achieve it. 

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