The Trouble With Gender Quotas- by Peggy Drexler
What we know: Having women in the boardroom is a good thing. But are more women a better thing?
That depends, of course, on how they get there.
The persisting imbalance of women in positions of power has spurned debate in recent years over whether or not companies should implement gender quotas in order to encourage greater equality between men and women in corporate and political positions of power. The simple fact is that despite advances in education and opportunity, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions. Here in the United States, although the number of women elected to positions of political power is rising, the going is very slow. There are currently 20 women in the Senate and 78 in the House—even though they’re called on to represent more than 50 percent of the population. In the business arena, a 2001 report by McKinsey Research pointed out that women claim 26 percent of the positions for vice presidents and up, while market research firm Catalyst reported in 2011 that women occupy just 16.1 percent of board seats of Fortune 500 companies.
One solution some have hit upon to get more women into these top tier positions: make it mandatory. After all, studies support the need for, and the advantages of, balanced leadership. According to a 2010 report by McKinsey, companies with women at the top levels of management perform better than those without. They’re also made up of physically healthier employees.
At the same time, though 72 percent of respondents in that same McKinsey survey believe there’s a direct connection between gender diversity and financial success, fostering diversity remains a low priority at most companies. Which is why many argue that the only way to create balance is to force it. As Gail Romero, CEO of MBA Women International, an organization that works to empower women in business, told US News & World Report last year, “We had to have Title IX in order to force something to happen for girls [in the arena of education and sports]. So my thought process is, we’re probably going to have to have quotas.”
Such thinking has led some countries in Europe to begin to implement gender quotas among its corporations; Norway started doing so back in 2003 when it established a 40 percent quota for women on its boards. Back at the start of the initiative, women held less than seven percent of private sector board seats. By 2010, women filled more than a quarter of those seats. France, Italy, Spain, and Belgium have followed suit with similar initiatives.
But while quotas may be an effective way to address gender disparities, at least as far as numbers go, their positive benefits may be short-lived. The quota system—or, more specifically, the women pulled into power because of it—can suffer from the perception that companies are getting the best of a single and specific gender, and not the best, period. It also renders illegitimate the hard work and talent that makes many women as successful as their male counterparts. These women are successful for reasons other than the fact that they’re women, and the quota system discounts that.
This calls to mind a recent statement by Amy Wallace, a journalist who created a campaign called “Women Eds We Love” to celebrate female editors. “Women editors don’t want to be judged or rewarded for their gender,” Wallace said, “but for their excellence.” The same can be said for women working in any industry across the board. Women whose hard work earns them professional success may find that their achievements are downplayed in the shadow of enforced quotas, which, of course, counteracts any positive effects of balanced leadership. Case in point: In Norway, the women who achieved quota-mandated board positions, even those who were deserving of them, were derided as “golden skirts.”
And indeed, though by 2010 the numbers of women in top positions in Norway were up, there was little evidence that corporate performances had been enhanced.
In fact, a study conducted by the University of Michigan in 2010 suggested that Norway’s forced quotas had negatively impacted both performance and board quality. That’s because, according to a report in the Economist, to obey the law, Norwegian firms promoted many women who were less experienced than the directors they had before. Again, not the point.