Inside the U.N. and C.G.I.

09.25.13

CGI 2013 : Getting Beyond Boardroom Quotas to Get Women in the Corner Office

At CGI on Tuesday, Pat Mitchell led a panel on how companies can move beyond affirmative action while still guaranteeing that women can get to the corner office.

Quotas, bottoms lines, and boardrooms came into play in a panel about women's role in the global economy at the Clinton Global Initiative this morning, in a debate that former secretary of State Hillary Clinton later described as “fascinating and galvanizing.”

In a discussion lead by Pat Mitchell, the CEO of the Paley Center for Media, leaders in politics, hospitality, finance, and engineering took the stage to grapple with how to boost female participation in sectors where women continues to lag well behind the 50 percent mark.

Sheika Lubna al-Qasimi, the minister of development for the United Arab Emirates (named as one of the world’s most powerful women by Forbes), shattered a host of widely held stereotypes about women in the Muslim world by painting a picture of U.A.E. as a woman-led society, where females outnumber men in the prime minister's office and on university campuses.

A friendly debate kicked off with Mitchell asking Marriott International CEO Arne M. Sorenson how he viewed the different qualities and perspectives brought to the table by women, but he didn't take the bait. “I don't,” he said, and, in a very postfeminist view, noted that he “wouldn't sit in that [board] room and say I get X from men and Y from women.” He added later that Marriott won't wait for government quotas and sets its own corporate goals for equality, implemented in various way internationally.

“We cannot seem to get beyond tokenism without quotas or affirmative action.”

“We cannot seem to get beyond tokenism without quotas or affirmative action,” agreed Halla Tomasdottir, founder of investment firm Sisters Capital in Denmark. In her native Iceland, the government has mandated that 40 percent of company boards must be female. She railed against the fact that only 16 percent of boardroom positions at top U.S. firms are occupied by women, and argued the Western world cannot expect the developing world to foster women’s rights without setting a good example. “We have to step up,” she said.

Qasimi jumped on this argument, noting that more women lead politically in the Islamic world than in the Western world. But she pushed against quotas and circled back to the age-old question on the mind of all working parents. “You can replace a CEO, but you can't replace a mother of father at home.”

“Before, [women] never got to wrestle with that question,” Sorenson said. “Let's let them wrestle with it.”

They soon may. As Clinton later noticed, of the 158 new commitments announced at CGI in 2013, 97 boast substantive components to boost the rights of women and girls.