Women on boards - quotas or no quotas?

What does Makaya Ntini have to do with
women on boards?  Read on and find out!
Last year I wrote a column about how I thought the fact that women only play three sets in competitive tennis is a cop out.

I still hold strongly to this position, for all the same reasons I outlined in that column.

However, there’s a new element of pseudo-feminism that has me a little confused. Quotas for women on boards.

Ok, before you all lose your collective mind, I am a big fan of women on boards! Honestly, I don’t see much difference to a woman being a company board member and a man being one.

In fact, my current employer has a female CEO and more female Directors than men. And you know what? It’s a pretty awesome business.

But I do have this little twinge of discomfort when I hear the phrase ‘quota’. I’ll give you an example.

Post-apartheid in South Africa, Government legislation decrees the RSA cricket team must always include one player with dark skin. Yes, it’s as simple as that.

Many hailed this as an important and necessary step to healing the rifts that were forged during the dark apartheid years.

This system worked great for the 90s and early 2000s, but it hit a decent snag in the mid-2000s.

The South African team was touring Australia and included their mandatory black player, Makhaya Ntini. The only problem was, Ntini was in the biggest form slump of his career.

This led to an unprecedented problem for South African officials. Ntini, by any other measure, should have been dropped from the team because he was playing terribly. There were players in the wings begging for a chance to be selected, but all of them were white skinned. This meant the selectors’ hands were tied because of the quota.

They simply couldn’t drop Ntini because they needed to have at least one black player on the team!

And surely this is the biggest argument against quotas for women on boards. The central tenant of feminism has always been that women and men should be treated equally. In fact, feminists have long argued that women should be treated as if they were identical to men.

So where does this notion of interfering regulation sit on people’s radars?

To be honest, I’m nowhere near qualified to answer. There’s probably a whole bunch of arguments in favour of quotas. And there’s a bunch of arguments against them too.

In fact, this very argument is being played out in the European Union right now. Viviane Reding, the European Union’s justice commissioner has famously said: “I don’t like quotas, but I like what quotas do.”

Maybe she has a point. But I can’t help but feel this is a little ‘tokenistic’. Surely the best answer to getting women on boards is to give more women the opportunity to apply and prove that they’re the best person for the job?

But interfering with the selection process because there’s this argument that women need artificial help in order to achieve this makes me a feel a little… uneasy.

What do you think though? Are quotas good or bad? And yes, this is a shameless attempt to get people to comment on my blog. Hurry up and do so, dammit!


Anonymous said…
I'm in favour of a meritocracy.
Dylan Malloch said…
I'm in favour of an oligarchy - with me as ruler.
Angus said…
Boards help guide a company and they benefit from different professioanl perspectives. Women bring different perspectives that benefit companies. The idea that ten people who cannot multitask are better than a mix is preposterous. So I think any company that doesnt have a good mix is doing themselves a disservice. That said, I dont think quotas are the answer and especially for private companies they are not. Let them figure it out for themselves. Government should be worried about government stuff, let companies worry about how best to delpoy resources to be the best company.
Dylan Malloch said…
Great points, Gus!
Hayley said…
I agree with Angus. Women do bring different perspectives that benefit companies. I hope though women aren't elected solely because they are women and have this 'different' perspective, but are legitimately able to contribute positively to the company.

As a woman who has recently been placed on a Board, I hope I wasn't put on there as 'token' or to fill the quota.

Although I have to say the 'quota' theory does have some legs in terms of guaranteeing a presence of a minority. Especially when said minority might otherwise be overlooked because of bias or corrupt leadership that might continue to use their power to keep people of differing perspectives out (as in your post-apartheid example). I'm sure after apartheid, and not just when talking about cricket, powerful white men might want to keep powerful white men in power - its good when this is in check.
Tim H said…
I wholeheartedly agree with Hayley, who agrees with Gus, who also agrees with your article!
That said, i still couldn't handle 5 sets of Sharapova Vs Azarenka so i'd rather they play 3 for now.
Steve said…
Quotas... yet another way for Government to needlessly stick its beak in areas where it doesn't belong. Where does it end? Why stop at women when similar arguments could be made for indigenous people, disabled people, migrants, people from regional/rural areas, old people, young people... Do we end up with mandatory 13 member boards made up of one representative from 13 identified minority groups? How does this help anyone? How does this improve corporate governance?
Dylan Malloch said…
Interesting points - And Steve makes a great one, that where does the slippery slope of government regulation stop?

Also, I just saw this interesting article from the Harvard Business Review on whether men or women make better managers. They did a bit of research and the results make for a good read:

Jo Cross said…
Hey Dylan,

I find this topic really interesting too and enjoyed that HBR article.

Agree that in an ideal world, a meritocracy would be what most are comfortable with but we don't live in a world where men and women are treated equally... so this is where quotas for women on boards could be useful.

The other problem is that often people can't just apply to be on a board, they are usually invited/recruited. And with the majority of board members being men, these invitations more often than not go to men. Perhaps what is needed is a change to the way that boards are assembled in order for the make-up of boards to significantly shift to a more even split of men and women. Quotas, at least in the short-term, could be what is needed to give this a kick-start.

I attended a lunch/talk on this topic a couple of years ago and though everyone on the panel was saying the right things, my boss at the time said she'd been to lunches years ago and the debate/situation had barely moved on. Again, this says to me that something as radical as quotas could be a good move to force some change.

kerryn said…
I concur! Lol not much to say but wanted to comment cause I heard there is a quota of 10 comments for your site to be successful ;-)