Why are We Still Confusing Quotas with Tokenism?

Board room meetingBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

As our writer Cleo Thompson pointed out in this morning’s piece on UK views on quotas, “According to a recent survey by executive recruiters Harvey Nash, 81% of women feel that bias in the appointment process has a major impact on female representation – but two-thirds (64%) do not support legal quotas.”

In a recent Computerweekly piece, Women in Technology founder Maggie Berry railed against quotas saying:

“It’s a fantastic achievement to be promoted thanks to your hard work, ability and success. But to be promoted to board level just because a certain number of female places need to be filled would make most women women feel insulted, rather than elated. In short, we want to be promoted on our own merits.”

Berry believes that instituting a quota system would mean placing women at the top who don’t deserve to be there. This view, that a quota system is akin to tokenism, is just plain wrong. It implies that the dearth of women at the top has nothing to do with institutional, cultural bias, and that women aren’t in leadership roles in large numbers because they majority simply aren’t qualified for them.

In fact, there are plenty of highly qualified women just waiting to break through to the top. The point of a quota system isn’t to play a numbers game, promoting female faces to positions of leadership just for show. It’s to encourage a correction of long-standing and culturally entrenched beliefs around what a leader looks like – male – and to place those women at the top who do deserve to be there, but because of culturally entrenched bias, haven’t made it.

Quotas in Norway

Doubters of the quota system have been quick to point out that the 40% experiment in Norway hasn’t yielded higher-performing companies and that many of the new female directors are serving on multiple boards (of course, it’s worth asking why we should expect to see dramatic changes in only a few years).

Yet, quotas do force companies to take a hard look at their promotion and succession practices, consider blind spots, and correct long-ignored imbalances. Even if that doesn’t significantly improve business (but doesn’t hurt it either) isn’t that enough of a reason to require companies to place more women at the top?

As Agnes Bolsø, Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, recently wrote in The Guardian:

“It is very hard to analyse the impact on profitability, and research on the economic effect of more women on boards is inconclusive. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the policy has paved the way for women to influence corporate decision making.”

She points out that professionalism on boards, as well as the overall education level of board directors, has increased since Norway’s gender quota law was implemented in 2003.

She continues:

“While it will take time for the quota policy to affect the number of board executives, it is very unlikely that the overall impact will be negative. As Elin Hurvenes, leader of the Professional Boards Forum in Oslo, pointed out: ‘Now headhunters are starting to look to the boards and pick up women for executive jobs.’”

It will take more time to understand the impact of Norway’s quota law, but so far, the net result is neutral to positive. Putting more women in leadership roles hasn’t caused the country’s economy to shatter, and providing role models and new pathways to management for women is obviously not a bad thing.

Already a Diversity Hire

In a recent TechCrunch piece, Bindu Reddy, CEO of MyLikes, says the problem with gender quotas is that being seen as a diversity hire makes it difficult for women to be taken seriously. She writes:

“Quotas always tend to be bad for everyone concerned in the long run – the female candidate who got the job because she was a woman, the hiring manager who may have compromised with a B player and the rest of the team who will always harbor the thought – ‘she is where she is, because she is a woman.’ Worst of all it does a real disservice to the women who are simply better at their jobs.”

The fact of the matter is if you’re a female in a male dominated profession, you likely already have team members who think you’re only there because you’re a diversity hire, regardless of whether there are mandated quotas or not. It’s an unpleasant and unfortunate result of a culturally entrenched bias for male leaders. Changing this bias will require a drastic shift in the number of women at the top, and because the bias exists, it’s not likely to happen without a push.

Reddy and Berry miss the point completely. The idea behind quotas is to get those women who are “simply better at their jobs” into the roles they deserve. Quotas may seem uncomfortable, but change is often uncomfortable. Businesses have had decades to correct the leadership gender imbalance, and most of them have done next to nothing. Perhaps quotas are the push we need to correct this long-standing imbalance.

0 Response

  1. I think it just has to be quotas. I see nothing wrong with possibility that it may mean we get an odd mediocre woman sitting alongside a mediocre man. Why does everyone assume only the best get onto boards?
    Equality may mean the right to be mediocre too! 🙂

  2. kathy

    The women who are simply better may get the job they deserve along with the label of mediocre token. In a senior role where great men are welcomed and mentored and excellent women who are perceived as tokens are not, it can be an unrewarding and risky prospect even for a deserving woman.

  3. Well said Melissa. I understand the resistance to quotas but, as you so rightly point out, it’s probably the only way to “encourage a correction of long-standing and culturally entrenched beliefs around what a leader looks like – male – and to place those women at the top who do deserve to be there, but because of culturally entrenched bias, haven’t made it.” Great quote – I’ll be posting your article on my Unwritten Rules facebook page.

  4. Great article Melissa – thanks for pointing out that distinction. Yes, it’s a risk that a woman would be perceived as a token appointment, but her performance once she is there is the important thing. Many women are underestimated when they begin a new role, but once they excel, it would be hard to make the argument that they didn’t, ultimately, belong there.

  5. Risky for deserving women, perhaps. Times that take courage? Absolutely.

    Quotas alone are not the solution. Nor the problem. It is a multi-faceted imbalance which requires a variety solutions, including, but not limited to quotas and courageousness.

  6. Elaine Heyworth

    Thanks for this Melissa – I absolutely agree with you. Quotas don’t have to mean tokenism – I firmly believe that there are already quantities of great women who should be at board level. Let’s do what we can to help them breakthrough.

  7. melissa

    Thanks for your comments, all. I think it’s important to remember than quotas aren’t there to give undeserving people jobs – they’re there to serve as a structural correction to the hidden biases we all have.