At an event last week at the St James Ethics centre, entitled Ethical Leadership, Women and Influence, a crowd of predominantly executive women from a range of industries listened intently while Geraldine Doogue engaged company directors and diversity advocates Wendy McCarthy and Sam Mostyn in a discussion that seemed to find its way quickly to the subject of gender quotas.
In my experience virtually every public discussion with female leaders in recent times has broached the need for greater female representation at board level. I read about this regularly, I hear it at any event featuring women leaders and I get asked about it constantly. Female leaders are engaged in the debate but, generally speaking, we aren’t the ones who need convincing.
At the Asia Pacific World Women Sport Conference this afternoon I will be joining the panel discussion: Going Beyond The ASC (Australian Sports Commission) Mandatory 40% Female Representation on Sporting Boards.
The session will be facilitated by Women On Boards Executive Director Claire Braund, who has spent much of her career promoting the value of a gender diverse board. Sports boards, once the sole domain of men, are slowly being infiltrated by women like me who are passionate about success. Emphasis on the word ‘slowly’.
I will be arguing for quotas, as has consistently been my position for the past 18 months, because clearly the current form of meritocracy isn’t reaping great results in most industries, including sport. My ideal position is 50:50 generally speaking but I was prepared to accept that it’s an ideal that we could move to over time, given where we are starting from.
Wendy McCarthy slapped me with a reality check during her discussion with Doogue and Mostyn last week when she said that she felt we were going about the call for equality all wrong.
McCarthy said the current debate was confusing, with some sectors suggesting 20% targets, others 30% and 40% with timeframes of years, even decades, for reaching those still dismal goals. She said we should simply demand 50% female representation on all boards as soon as possible. She grabbed my attention. I sat up and leaned in. I found myself nodding furiously in agreement with her.
Having commanded the floor with her arousing talk of what true equality could look like, McCarthy then stated that she hoped the take-out from the ethics discussion wouldn’t be simply the need for more women on boards when in fact the greater need was for more women in executive roles of most companies in all industries. I felt like clapping – and if we were in any other forum I’m certain that most of the audience would have been moved to as well.
The reason that Wendy McCarthy is celebrated constantly as a true visionary is that she stakes her claim to the biggest prize going, rather than dancing around the edges with token gestures. Swelling the ranks of female leaders at the pointy end of ASX companies, and other organisations that have rarely seen a woman in charge, would be a significantly larger win for a greater number of women. Imagine the momentum of change through the whole of organisations that could roll on from there?
As Sam Mostyn stated during her discussion with McCarthy and Doogue last week, breaking the back of cultural norms takes courage, even for those who have managed to get a seat at the board table or on the executive team.
The most consistent argument against quotas is that the appointment of executives and directors of companies should be the best person for the job, regardless of gender. I happen to agree that the best person for the job should be given the job.
In fact, the best argument for quotas is that if companies were really appointing based on meritocracy then the quality of leadership would be vastly better than it is today.
There is nothing more disheartening in business than spending time with an executive or board director who definitely couldn’t have been appointed based on merit. Currently, the number of hoops that most women have to jump through to get onto a board or into a C-suite role means that the calibre of female leadership is, on balance, comparatively high.
Isn’t it time to stop hoping for a more equitable world and start demanding real change by arguing, as Wendy McCarthy has, for 50% gender quotas?