50-50. Do we need quotas to guarantee balanced leadership?

imagesAre legislated quotas the only way, within our lifetime, to see a balance of women and men leading governments and organizations?

There are two sides to this hotly debated issue.

First, the naysayers point out that quotas are a form of reverse discrimination – the group now discriminated against (men) are previously the ones that did the discriminating (poor things).

Quotas for 50% women at the top of organizations therefore replaces one form of discrimination with another, and discrimination is a bad thing.

Second, the idea that women might be promoted based on their gender, rather than their ability to do the job, is offensive to many women and men.

“There is no appetite for quotas here,” commented Jacey Graham, co-director of a FTSE-100 cross-company mentoring program for women and the author of a recently published book on women in boardrooms in the U.K.. “There is an appetite to facilitate talented women coming through, but they must be seen to compete on the same terms as male colleagues,” she says.

On the other side of the fence stand those of us (yes, that includes me), who look at the evidence and conclude that quotas are the only way women will be equally represented at the top of organizations.

Women are currently 15.2% of Board Directors and 13.5% of Corporate Officers in Fortune 500 companies. The picture is similar in Canada and most parts of Europe. It’s worse in many other parts of the world.

What’s more, the rate of progress is glacial and shows no sign of speeding up.

Relying on the good sense of male dominated governments and organizations to grasp the excellent business case for gender balanced leadership is not working!

We have tried patience and waiting our turn; we continue to present research that shouts the benefits of more women in board rooms and executive suites – but it’s not working!

Ansgar Gabrielsen, Norwegian minister for trade and industry (2001-2004) was ahead of the game in realizing that such efforts were ineffective. In 2003,  he forced through legislation that now has Norway leading the world with over 40% women on the boards of publicly quoted companies.

He knew that this wouldn’t happen without the implementation of legislated quotas.

Other European countries, such as France and Spain, are now treading the same path to force companies to achieve gender balance at the top of organizations.

In India, the women’s reservation bill, has just passed the upper house imposing a 33% quota for women in India’s federal and state assemblies.

Quotas are not an elegant or sophisticated way to bring about change – but unfortunately they might be the only way.

I believe we should start with voluntary quotas for organizations to achieve a minimum 40% women in government, on boards and on senior executive teams with a reasonable time scale to make the change. If this doesn’t work, move straight to legislation to enforce it.

I’m in good company. Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada, comes to a similar conclusion in her excellent piece, Holding Half the Seats, published recently in  Newsweek.

What do you think? I’d love to know your views.

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