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.