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Why I don’t want quotas for women on boards, by Sophie Macdonald
(March 2011)Last week was International Women’s Day, and it’s about that time of year that the subject of quotas for women on boards raises its head.
The opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey has recently said that he would back quotas that enforce a mandatory 30% of board members being female. He also supports there being punitive measures in place for companies who do not achieve these quotas within a particular time frame, arguing that companies have had long enough to get there voluntarily.
Women currently make up around 25% of board positions in Australia, but that figure decreases to 11% for the top 200 listed companies.
As a female owner of a successful private company I am sometimes asked for my opinion on this matter, and it usually comes as a surprise when I say that I do not support quotas for women on boards.
I welcome the day when board level positions are occupied equally by either gender, but I do not agree that enforcing mandatory quotas, and punishing those who fail to achieve them, helps us to achieve that outcome. I believe it to be a simplistic notion that does not address the underlying issues as to why there are not more women on boards now. I also believe that it will be harmful to businesses, and will undermine the achievements of women occupying senior level appointments.
Why do we not currently have more women on boards? Is it because there are suitable senior level women who are being kept out by ‘old boy networks’, or is it because there are simply not enough women moving up through the ranks who can be considered for board level roles? While the former is certainly something that happens, my belief is that it is the latter that is the main cause for concern when addressing the problem of not enough senior women in companies.
This problem becomes particularly acute when looking at the key industries in which Skye Recruitment operates – engineering, construction, and mining. These industries are typically male-dominated and, despite many initiatives from leading companies and universities to attract women, it still remains the case that females make up a very small percentage of the work-force in these areas. For one of these companies to appoint enough women at board level to achieve the quota, they would (for the most part) have to find a way to drastically increase the current numbers of women taking the courses at university.
Equality in the work place is a relatively recent concept, and it stands to reason that many women would not have had the opportunity to work toward a board level position 40 + years ago. My belief is that this will change, but that it cannot be an immediate and overnight change. Work places are improving in terms of creating environments that will allow women the opportunity to advance their careers. Paid parental leave, flexible working, and mentoring schemes are all ways in which companies are making it easier to hold on to their good female (and male) workers, and help them progress.
Should women have the opportunity to make up 50% of board positions? Absolutely. Should women who feel that their company is discriminating against them on the basis of gender have a means to fight this? Absolutely. Should companies be forced to grant 30% of board positions to women, whether or not they are competent and capable of doing the role? No. Will this demean the achievements of every senior level woman who will be deemed tokenistic? Yes it will.
There is no quick-fix answer to this problem, but in order to get the numbers right at the top I think we would be better off looking at what we can do to get the numbers right at the bottom, and how we can keep them there in the middle. The rest will progress from there, but it will not be instant.