LEADERSHIP / NOV. 22, 2013
version 4, draft 4

The Best Women Won't Need Quotas to Reach the Boardroom

Landing a top executive job purely on the basis of your sex (and, to be specific, because you're female) – got a step nearer this week, when Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democrats agreed new legislation that will require all German companies listed on the stock exchange to ensure at least 30% of their supervisory board is female.

The new rule comes into effect in 2016, but from 2015 companies will also have to publish ‘targets’ of how many women they want to see reach the top.

The German law has been passed to try to improve the fact only 17.4% of board positions are occupied by women. It follows a motion passed in the European Parliament (also this week), which voted overwhelmingly in favour of drafting new laws proposing that the boards of all European quoted companies be 40% female by 2020.

The call for boards to be 40% women has been rumbling on for several years now, but these new measures signal that the issue will now be tackled by employment law, rather than letting employers improve matters gradually by themselves.

Understandably, it’s not without controversy. While making it law would speed up female representation (it's been calculated businesses would take more than 100 years to achieve male:female parity if left to their own devices), numerous leaders – including the female boss of TalkTalk, Dido Harding – has said that positively discriminating in this way is a ’sideshow’. She argues that rather than employing people because of their sex, the top team should be picked on their abilities to do the job. She adds that workplaces should instead be developing programmes that produce a pipeline of future talent – both male and female.

Commentators have also argued that women themselves don’t like quotas – because they will create the suspicion amongst their (mostly male) colleagues that they haven’t got where they are on merit, but have instead got there because of their gender.

For career-focused women in the workplace, who are looking to make the next step up, living with a fear that people doubt their appointments cannot be good. Studies consistently show a diverse board brings diversity of thought, and more innovation. Quotas could actually (ironically) discourage women from seeking top roles, because it could instead create a culture of suspicion and critique.

Can anything be done? Unfortunately, this is very much a European-wide issue, and one the European Parliament is keen to press through with. For brilliant women, the advice is simple – if you keep showing that you are the best that you are, gender won’t come into it. You’ll be promoted and found worthy by the track record you’ve shown in previous and your current roles. And don’t let anyone else try to tell you differently.

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