A Look at Gender Quotas: Is It Enough?

Photo courtesy of Archana Somasegar

By: Guest Blogger Archana Somasegar ’18, HCWC’s #WCW 10/28/15

Since the implementation of Norway’s 40% gender quota for corporate boards in 2008, the floodgates have opened for discourse and design of gender quotas. Since its implementation, Norway’s corporate sector benefitted economically from the inclusion of women on boards (Sweigart, 2012). While some argue that gender quotas subvert the meritocratic ideal, legal requirement for board diversity begins the discourse about how to make the field more receptive to women. In order to fully utilize the untapped resource that women represent, women themselves must be a part of the conversation. Quotas can help begin this cycle by mandating that women be at the table in the first place to discuss how to bring even more women into the boardroom. As eloquently stated by Alsott, “gender quotas represent the kind of structural change that could alter business practices that exclude women from leadership roles.” (Alsott, 2014)

In conjunction with all the economic benefits of women on boards, this legal initiative clearly plays an important role in bringing more women into the fold as analyzed above. However, studies show that the mere addition of “token” women is not sufficient to instigate the kind of economic and structural change we hope to achieve through the WoB Initiative. As described through critical mass theory, only when we surpass a certain threshold of female representation on a board can we hope to transform the labyrinth of female ascension in the corporate world to a straightforward track. Studies demonstrate that increasing the mass of females on a board to pass the critical threshold (generally considered 30%), the level of innovation of a firm quantifiably increases, lending credence to the idea that a higher quota of females on boards is indeed necessary to achieve results (Torchia et al., 2011).

However, it is very simple to fall into the trap of homogenizing women. The belief that all women want the exact same thing and can bring the same “diversity” to the table is inherently flawed but alarmingly prevalent. This perhaps may lead us to consider that gender quotas are not enough. The intersectional nature of gender demonstrates that not only is gender diversity necessary, but so is racial and socio-economic diversity amongst others. However, if quotas become more restrictive to “force diversity,” the concern about hiring unqualified candidates becomes more legitimate. Pande points out “gender quotas may crowd out other marginalized ethnic or socioeconomic groups. By reserving certain positions for women, there will be fewer positions open for candidates from other groups that are also underrepresented. Crowd-out may occur, further limiting their voice in both descriptive representation and in areas of substantial representation.” (Pande et al., 2011) Thus, gender quotas seem like a good short-term measure to bring women to the table, but a holistic approach to training and appointing board members must be administered in order to achieve true diversity. Similar to the US Supreme Court’s decisions about affirmative action in the realm of college acceptances, diversity must be considered amongst other things in order to create the environment best suited for corporate growth.

Fluently stated by Pande, “at face value gender quotas are only corrective mechanisms: like other affirmative action policies, gender quotas acknowledge existing gender inequalities and how they are embedded in pervading structures of power (on the labor market or with respect to the division of house labor) but do not address the root cause of the problem (job market segregation, gendered division of labor, public/private divide) at all.” Thus while gender quotas may buy us time to deconstruct our current system, this holistic review of our corporate system is necessary in the long run to ensure economically favorable gender equality.  In particular, resources must be diverted to refine and equalize the nomination and hiring process. Increasing research has proven that the main focus should not be issues within the pipeline for attracting women, but rather to stop the practice of undervaluing female employees and passing over them for promotions. (Sealy et al., 2009) Women face the institutional barrier of the selection process itself, which has proven time and time again to be biased. Often, hirers attribute (incorrectly) stereotypes on women who may otherwise be qualified while also being hesitant to invest in them for fear of a woman’s dedication to her family. In this light, quotas seem to provide short-term relief to the ailing system, but it is vital that we focus on more long-term solutions that can begin to deconstruct the negative stereotypes women face today.

Works Consulted

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Terjesen, S., R. V. Aguilera, and R. Lorenz. “Legislating a Woman’s Seat on the Board: Institutional Factors Driving Gender Quotas for Boards of Directors.” Journal of Business Ethics: n. pag. Print.

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