Quota conundrum

How did half the world’s population become a “diversity” problem?

November 13, 2012
November 13, 2012

Women famously hold up half the sky—but just 13.7% of corporate board seats in Europe.

Now, a proposal to bridge the gap has sputtered. Instead, the European Union plans tomorrow to essentially tell companies this: It would be nice to have women on your boards. But you don’t have to do it.

Previously, activists had sought mandatory quotas to ensure female representation on the boards of large publicly traded companies. Under the revised proposal, 40% of seats should go to women—but there’s no punishment if they don’t.

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Viviane Reding, center, advocates quotas for women on Europe’s corporate boards.AP Photo / Thierry Charlier

A UK House of Lords report this week opposed quotas. Here’s the committee chairwoman’s justification:

Baroness O’Cathain said that the introduction of a legislative quota at a time when business-led initiatives were beginning to have a positive impact on gender diversity at board level would “do more harm than good” and “be unpopular with many of the women it would seek to help”. Quotas should only be introduced “where the business world has shown itself to be unwilling and unable to change its ways,” she said.

Interestingly, Europe’s retreat comes on the heels of a report in Harvard Business Review questioning whether women want to be in a special category anyway. How, it asks, did underrepresentation become such an issue for half the population, especially the half that controls household spending and tends to be better educated?

Similarly, why do we unquestioningly use the oxymoronish term “gender diversity”? There are only two genders, so you can’t have a diversity of them; your organization is either balanced or imbalanced.

The Harvard report wasn’t targeting the quota advocates but its advice applies nonetheless. Stop making this a gender issue and force companies to see inclusion as a matter of survival and business sense.

A simple short cut is to drop the use of the word “women” — “customers,” “talent” or “leadership” will do nicely. The more companies talk about “women” the more they position the issue of balance as a women’s issue and exclude the role of men in the solution.

Indeed, the EU plan to be unveiled tomorrow—the one with no quotas or consequences—was co-signed by five male commissioners.

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