Quotas for women – a meaningless numbers game?

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Women are powerful. They play a crucial role in leadership and decision-making roles in all spheres of life. According to a Boston Consulting Group poll of 23,000 women in 22 countries[1] women drive 70 percent of total consumer spending and decide how their families use financial services, insurance and health care. In Australia women represent 45 percent of the workforce yet hold just over 9% of key management positions in ASX 500 companies.[2] So despite 25 years of legislation promoting equal opportunity and affirmative action for women in Australia, women’s power has not translated into the fair representation of women in senior decision-making roles. Even today, women graduates earn almost 10 percent less than their male counterparts. This gap doesn’t reduce – indeed it widens, with the pay gap between women and men remaining stubbornly fixed at around 17 percent.[3]

This poor track record is a global issue. In response, several countries have introduced mandatory quotas for women, including Norway, India and Malaysia. In Australia the ASX Corporate Governance Council’s diversity policy requires all publicly listed companies in Australia to set, and report on, targets for increased female representation. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Gender Equality Blueprint 2010 recommends a target of 40% representation of women on all publically listed Boards in Australia,  senior executive ranks of the public service, all companies providing goods or services to the Australian government, and on the boards of all publicly listed companies in Australia to be achieved over five years.[4]

Where is all this leading? The imposition of quotas has been hotly debated in Australia recently, with polarised views expressed vocally by many leaders, male and female. These views are well formulated and can be read elsewhere[5]. This article argues that quotas may miss the point. If we are ever to crack the glass ceiling, simply appointing women to Boards or mandating quotas for women in workplaces without the required culture in place, or behaviours to embed this change is not the answer. Why? Because jobs and experience that are considered essential for progressing to CEO or Board roles – including operational roles and experience that comes with having run a major business – are almost exclusively the domain of men.

Lies, damn lies and statistics.

As a woman, which of the following two companies would you rather work for?

  • A company that can tick the box on gender statistics, achieving 50% representation of women on the senior leadership team, yet looking below the surface, women hold support and service positions of Human Resources Director, Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Legal Council and possibly Chief Information Officer – with the remaining operational General Manager roles and the CEO role and his successor occupied by men?
  • Or – a company that achieves a lower representation of women on the senior leadership team however women hold key decision-making roles in General Managers of significant businesses? Perhaps the CEO is also a woman as is her successor?

This argument does not diminish the extraordinary achievements of women who have made it to the top in support or service roles. Many of these women have had to overcome significant obstacles, deal with unconscious and conscious bias, stereotyping and discrimination and have faced significant challenges and barriers that many men would not have had to face. They are real heroes and great role models for other women and nothing should detract from their incredible successes. [6] However it is time to challenge generational attitudes about what makes a good CEO and a Board director by appointing women to mission-critical operational roles and enabling them to succeed.

Women need to be developed and nurtured in roles that are pipeline roles to CEO positions. Only when the existing, outdated paradigms are challenged will women be provided with the critical experience to be able to contribute fully to all facets of the Board discussion and fulfil confidently all of their responsibilities as Board directors. Playing at the margins does women a disservice.

Making the right career choices

As a woman wishing to achieve career success as a senior leader in an organisation, start by identifying organisations that have a track record of appointing women into operational roles, that demonstrate their commitment to gender diversity through leadership from the top, investment in development of women executives and in measuring and holding leaders accountable for achieving true diversity targets across all role types, not just leadership levels. These are your targets.

[2] Reported in 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership at

[3] Reported by Hannah Piterman in Sideways To The Top, 10 Stories of Successful Women That Will Change Your Thinking About Careers Forever, Melbourne Book, 2013, p. 27

[6] The career stories of several of these women are chronicled in Sideways To The Top, 10 Stories of Successful Women That Will Change Your Thinking About Careers Forever, Melbourne Book, 2013


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