Are Women Sick of Quotas?

When, in 2011, Lord Davies published a report on gender imbalance on UK boards, he recommended that by 2015 at least 25 per cent of FTSE 100 board positions should be held by women. At this point in time, ten months after his findings, women actually make up 26 per cent of executive and leadership positions. Lord Davies has further stipulated that by 2020 the target should be 33 per cent across the FTSE 350. Countries such as Norway (which leads the world for the representation of women on boards), Belgium and France rely on quotas to ensure that women’s voices are heard at board level.  But do we need quotas and are women actually sick of them?

“Sexism isn’t a problem anymore!” 

Recent news that Saatchi and Saatchi chairman, Kevin Roberts, has been disciplined for suggesting that the lack of women in top roles within the advertising industry is ‘not a problem’, highlights the schism of opinion on this subject. His arguments were that women simply don’t want the top jobs, they’re happy doing the creative work and tend to shy away from extra liabilities. His employers, Publicis Group, disagreed and issued a statement in which they professed the company’s inclusivity and ethos of nurturing of all talent regardless of gender, which it said, starts at the top. His suspension and subsequent resignation annoyed a lot of people – of both sexes.

Maybe Mr Robert’s comments, which included an allusion to an ‘intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy’, resonated with many women in such positions. After all, elevation to the C-suit isn’t for everyone, and for every woman whose ambitions include a seat at the corporate table, there are many more who shy away from it.

But what about the women who do want it?

Clearly a certain level of sexism prevails within society today, as much as it ever did. Consider research from the Fawcett Society which reveals that 64 per cent of women believe that men in higher management positions are unwilling to make room for women in the boardroom unless they really have to. A report from the Kellogg Foundation found that when a woman CEO is appointed to a company’s board, the business sees a two per cent average decline in the price of its stocks on the day her appointment is announced.

We’re already seeing warning signs from executive recruiters who say there are too few women to replace the female executives who currently hold board positions and that the level of women non-executive directors at board level is likely to fall from 26 per cent to 31 per cent in the near future. Is it surprising then, given these attitudes, that quotas are sometimes imposed?

Yet even more research shows that developing nations which have a female leader, such as Liberia, the potential for growth, due to the more collaborative and participative leadership style which women have, was almost six per cent higher than if there was a man in charge. Similarly, it is recognised that female CEOs perform better in situations of corporate transformation or conflict than male ones.

So, are quotas the answer?

Many women in leadership positions would disagree that quotas are the best way forward. Quotas can provoke suspicion and further detract from genuine gender equality, leading some to suspect that women are in positions of power purely because they are women. Furthermore, more work is needed into understanding the reasons exactly why women are not putting themselves forward for the top jobs – the phrase ‘work/life balance’ springs to mind. This includes both financial and childcare support for women who aspire to the C-suite, as well as a fundamental shift in perception of society and corporate culture which needs to reward women who simply want to get to the top on their own merit. 

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Fiona McKay