Why a hard target is a quota and why it's time there were quotas

Why a hard target is a quota and why it’s time there were more

“There are credible reports that we can expect to achieve gender equality in the workplace  between 80 and  170 years. As it stands women comprise 50.1% of the population and 46.4% of the Australian workforce. There are more men named David running ASX200 companies than there are females, and so too for John and Peter.

Despite companies spending a fortune on diversity and inclusion, women remain rare in senior leadership.

Women hold 12.9% of chair positions, 24.7% of directorships and comprise 28.5% of key management personnel in Australia’s largest organisations.  Among non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees, 29.9% have no key management personnel who are women.

We have just discovered today that a major Australian company, Westpac, has achieved gender parity in leadership – which is an extraordinary achievement. But it also shows how long it takes.

With this in mind does anyone really think it’s not time for quotas to speed up progress?”

This is the question I was compelled to ask the DCA Diversity Debate panellists when the opportunity arose last week.

I wasn’t surprised – to be honest – that the response wasn’t affirmative. Not because I thought my case wasn’t persuasive but because quotas remain deeply unpopular in certain quarters. And while I wasn’t surprised, I was disappointed because, to be perfectly frank, I am growing less understanding of the aversion to quotas with every year that passes.

If each year was bringing meaningful, marked progress for women in the workplace I could understand quotas being viewed as unnecessary. But that isn’t happening. Progress is glacial.

It is increasingly difficult, in my mind, to reconciling wanting gender equality in any setting with a firm rejection of a proven mechanism to get there.

‘Hard targets’ are an increasingly popular alternative but the difference is purely semantics according to Irene Natividad, a global champion for women and the founder of the Global Summit for Women who was in Australia last week.

“A hard target is a quota! You can euphemise all you like but a target with consequences is a quota. Quotas are a speed up mechanism,” Natividad said at an event hosted by Women’s College at Sydney University.  “We have waited long enough.”

Two reasons are brought up most often in opposition to quotas. The first is that no woman wants to be appointed by a quota and the second is the potential cultural backlash of having change enforced.

The first might be true for some women but a growing number of senior women are open and proud about being quota appointments. Diane Smith-Gander and Sam Mostyn are two women who have publicly acknowledged that they would not have been considered for certain boards were it not for a quota. Both are sufficiently competent that it has not diminished their contribution. A quota simply opened a door that would have otherwise remained firmly shut.

When Natividad asked four senior corporate leaders, Sydney Airport CEO Kerrie Mather, Sam Mostyn, Dr Kirstin Ferguson and Christine Bartlett, on Wednesday whether they supported quotas they were unanimous.

“The four of you said ‘Yes’. That is very rare,” Irene said at the event which was a precursor to the Global Summit which will be in Sydney in April 2018.

Sam Mostyn says a quota is often a very powerful first step on the road to change.

“Until a successful woman is visible the bias and stereotyping [against women] continues,” Mostyn said.

The backlash argument is curious. Why doesn’t the disappointment and disapproval of women – tired of being systemically excluded – count as backlash?

The most noticeable backlash currently getting attention is among men who are sufficiently unhappy with the focus that diversity and women are now getting – even without women occupying more positions of power.

Whether it happens because of a quota or organic change, my guess is some men are going to be unhappy however the appointments of women happen.

Natividad is a proud supporter of quotas and when I asked how she responds to the suggestion that women being appointed under quotas would create a backlash, she was succinct.

“I couldn’t care less,” Natividad said. “Just because someone is appointed under a quota doesn’t mean they aren’t qualified.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Check out our recent Work It Out podcast with Lisa McKay-Sim:


Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox