How quotas can make leaders out of girls

It is International Women’s Day today. So it should be no surprise to those who follow this kind of thing that the issue of whether we should force companies to up the number of women on their boards by enforcing quotas is back on the agenda again. I’ve been over at the BBC debating the matter on World at One with Virginia Bottomley. I suspect most people would have me down as being anti-quotas. I can see why.

First, there has been significant movement in the last year: around 25% of the new appointments to boards have been women. Second, there is a risk that quotas will mean that women who aren’t quite up to the job will end up on boards, something that is no help to anyone. Third, that a small group of women who are up to the job – and on the circuit – will end up on too many boards: they’ll become a kind of girls’ club inside the old boys’ club.

And finally, the sudden creation of quotas and any suggestion that there could be appointments made on anything other than absolute merit could be seen as something of a slap in the face to the women out there (and in this I include myself) who, as the FT puts it, “have worked hard to prove their capabilities in a male dominated world”.

But while all this is possible, I am actually pro-quotas. Without them, we won’t ever see the percentage of women on boards that we want (and that the research suggests we need). Why? Psychology.

First, there is ‘familiarity bias’. We all tend to choose as friends, as colleagues, as employees, people in our own likenesses. So a group of middle-aged men faced with a group of candidates are more likely to hire a middle-aged man than a woman – or a younger man, for that matter.

They’ll do this subconsciously, but odds are they’ll still do it. But this isn’t the biggest problem (the fact that boards have recently upped their hiring of female non-execs shows they can be shocked out of familiarity bias).

Instead, I suspect that what is really holding women back is the way women think. Here’s a disturbing bit of research. Flick down through the numbers and you will see that in the US, 44% of eight-year-old girls want to be leaders of some kind.

But that’s when it peaks: over all, only 21% of girls think they “have what it takes to be a leader”. Move on to women, and you will see that around 75% of women think the glass ceiling exists, while only 38% of men do. Whether it does or not (I think not) is entirely by the by: even an imaginary barrier can stop people moving.

Getting to be board-ready – and particularly ready to be an exec rather than a non-exec – is hard work. It means acquiring a host of new and flexible skills. It means early mornings and late nights. It means sometimes not making it home for your kids’ bathtime.

Lots of women already do this. But if more women are going to do that, they need to know it will pay dividends. They need to know that leadership opportunities exist for them: that if they get board-ready, they’ll get on a board. That means quotas.

  • Shinsei1967

    1) Familiarity bias doesn’t stop people from being friends with (or even marrying !) people who are a different gender from them. If you claim that a 60 year old bloke is happy to promote a 35 year old bloke then this “familiarity” bias evidently doesn’t apply to age. And faced with a 35 year old man from a working class background or a posh 35 year old woman might not this 60 year old man (assuming he is posh) feel more familiarity towards class background than gender.

    2) Having quotas doesn’t get rid of women’s (mistaken) belief that there is a glass ceiling; doesn’t it actually suggest that the government KNOWS there is a glass ceiling.

    3) “Board ready”. Well, there are skills needed for board level, but these are the same for both men and women. The reason Unilever appoints 40 year old accountant Bob as FD isn’t because they are sexist it is because there are no 40 year old accountant Fiona’s in the finance dept. They all left at 35 to spend time with their families.

  • Shinsei1967

    I also can’t help noticing that the overwhelming majority of faces at Moneyweek are male. Perhaps you should try this quota system at Moneyweek and let us know how it works out.

  • Romford Dave

    A quick google search reveals 25% of the Moneyweek board is female, editor in chief is female and Bengt can be a bit of an old woman sometimes;)

    Not a bad ratio in a predominantly male environment and without the aid of any artificial quotas.

    A key benefit of a quota system and one that is much unpublicised, is its ability to provide a comforting excuse for lesser abled males to justify their lack of ladder climbing.

  • Ellen

    Kirsty Wark and Martha Kearney on Newsnight are insisting on making women more visible by inviting women only panels to comment on economic affairs. It’s a very big statement. The first time we saw it my husband commented that it looked odd and he was right. It was unusual. But had Jeremy Paxman been sitting there with a male only panel, I am sure we would not have even noticed it. I think just saying to work hard oversimplifies what society’s perception of women are – mostly support roles. And most people work hard without the plaudits. It would be nice to see better female representation on Moneyweek and I am sure capable females are not that hard to come by.

  • Shinsei1967

    @Romford Dave

    I was referring more to the “Moneyweek Team”. The people who write the columns. 16 out of 17 are men.

    You can’t expect to have more women on boards if there aren’t women in the ranks below board level.

  • Ste

    Why quotas just for board members?

  • NeutronWarp9

    No matter how hard some might try, you cannot deny gender differences. Increasingly, the male of the species is being diluted and brainwashed into accepting his diminished lot.
    Many other cultures observe our ways with incredulity. Is the traditional role of women not one of the greatest joys of all? Clearly, not. Work is best; with the career progression, status and money that can bring. And then we wonder why the ideal of a family unit has been eroded.
    Where’s Mummy? Who’s Mummy, more like. Still, it’s not all bad. Where’s Daddy? Chatting up the MILFs at work. Tis in our nature, afterall.

  • Ellen

    NeutronWarp has just made a very good case for the why quotas should be introduced and demonstrates the reasons why they are necessary. Successive governments confuse women’s issues with family issues. Women who don’t have children or whose children have grown up are unlikely to be interested in what childcare policies are in place. While they are more likely to be of concern to fathers of young children. Yet, unlike women in general, these young fathers are still regarded as individuals. Women’s issues are about tackling discrimination not raising children. Children are a family issue.

  • nigeles175d

    Women could build their own FTSE100 companies instead of demanding men hand over their work on a silver platter. It seems the whole world is always lending a hand to lift up women by stomping on men. Why are there not female quotas for the dirty and dangerous jobs? 97% of workplace deaths are those of men.

  • Chris

    I would like to know Merryn why someone as knowledgeable as you continues to regurgitate the ‘glass ceiling’ and ‘old boys club’ lines as the reason but overlooks one other much more interesting and probably likely explanation. This explanation is that the majority of companies and banks in the UK are owned and run by Masons. Freemasonry being an overwhelmingly male society promotes the interests of other Freemasons who are naturally male. The current system is not discriminating against women it is discriminating against all non Masons, men and women. Are you and the Establishment deliberately turning a blind eye to this? There are around 600,000 Masons in the UK concentrated in banking, politics, business, and law and order. Ever wonder why people in those professions are so hard to convict for criminal activities?

  • Nev

    There are proportionately fewer women at Board level because there are fewer women at the next level down.
    We know that women are slightly more successful than men in their 20s, but this advantage disappears in the 30s and by their 40s women are a real minority at senior levels of the professions. Boards are generally comprised of older and more experienced people.
    The truth may be that women are simply well balanced and more committed to their families than their work. So that only extremely ambitious or childless women are able to make progress in that arena.
    Perhaps it is really all about the pursuit of happiness, and where women (and men) are likely to find that elusive goal.

  • Kawasakifreak

    @11 – totally agree.

    In a true meritocracy you get out what you put in.
    The issue of why fewer women appear on Co Boards appears to reflect their life choices where the artificial assumption that family can be managed separate from business is just fanciful. The UK armed forces is testament to this already.

    I think support for female quotas in the job market appears to confuse female aspiration in an ideal world with female priorites in the real one.

  • Kawasakifreak

    @11 – totally agree.

    In a true meritocracy you get out what you put in.
    The issue of why fewer women appear on Co Boards appears to reflect their life choices where the artificial assumption that family can be managed separate from business is just fanciful. The UK armed forces is testament to this already.

    I think support for female quotas in the job market appears to confuse female aspiration in an ideal world with female priorites in the real one.


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