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Could gender quotas be good for men too?
There’s a scene in the 2000 hit movie What Women Want where the main character Darcy McGuire is attempting to come up with a marketing slogan.
She begins reeling off random thoughts in her head around women and running: “She likes to run alone. No pressure, no stress. This is the one place she can be herself. Look any way she wants, dress, think any way she wants. No game playing, no rules.”
All of which sound like ideal scenarios for women. Yet the reality is, there are indeed rules in today’s corporate world. And women have been playing by them, rather reluctantly, for decades.
One specific rule that recently became the topic of a panel discussion held at Michael Page’s Grosvenor office centres on the theme of gender quotas. Specifically, the proposed argument was the spicy proposition that quotas are in fact good for men. The panel was encouraged to give its views on which side of the fence they sat, and why.
Gender quotas are defined as legislated mandates that require women make up a certain proportion or number of members of a body such as boards or in leadership positions.
Moderator and journalist Catherine Fox kicked things off. “With many CEOs over a number of decades, one word that could make them all go a bit red in the face and get quite annoyed at was quotas.”
Fox stressed the importance of an open discussion. “If they’re having that almost knee-jerk reaction, and these are people who were often big supporters of change, then I think there’s something about it that we do need to think about in a slightly different way.”
One reason for this rethink was underlined at the 2014 World Economic Forum by the chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan Alliance, Carlos Ghosn. He noted that quotas are synonymous with an evolving structure: “When you have two percent of your management pool made by women, there is no way with big principles and good attitudes that you are going to change this radically.”
“Quotas lead to action. Action means hiring, training, coaching, and putting in the process of the company the systematic decision, forcing the selection of female potential at all levels,” said Ghosn.
Need for balance
Tim Scholefield of non-profit firm The 100% Project, emphasised that today’s Australian workplace is still far from a balanced playing field. “Despite the fact that we have reduced gender inequality in the workforce, we still have really entrenched issues that lead to only about 5% of CEOs in ASX200 companies being female, and only 6 out of 20 key management personnel being female,” he said.
Scholefield, whose company wants to see 100 percent of Australia’s leadership talent, female and male, contributing equally, stressed that there are still big obstacles preventing this. “We have a very entrenched gender pay gap that just will not go away no matter what we do -- and it actually starts very early in women’s careers.” He noted that support for gender quotas in Australia was often hindered by a persisting yet false belief that firms are merit-based, with any lack of women in senior roles due to a lack of qualified applicants.
A study carried out by The 100% Project set out to investigate this “myth of meritocracy”. The study concluded that of the 248 adults participating, 61% supported gender quotas, while only 21% actively opposed them. It supports the notion of a vicious cycle in terms of attitudes to quotas: individuals with a preference for an unequal society endorse the idea of meritocracy, further reinforcing the idea of men as better leaders, and supporting unconscious bias that favours them.
Rhonda Brighton-Hall, the founder and CEO of Making Work Absolutely Human, had her own breakthrough moment on the topic. “In 1986 I was sitting in BHP and had a discussion that the only way to get women and gender equality was if we engaged men,” she noted. “And the way to do that might be through quotas.”
The response of most was that this was an outrageous idea, she notes. “They said, ‘We should be merit based and that’s what we should do’. And that was 31 years ago – that’s a long time and nothing’s moved.” Many of her generation’s peers had received their position on boards as a result of quotas, and may not have gotten the opportunities otherwise, she noted. Many were now demonstrating how well they could do the roles.
Brighton-Hall suggested that one of the causes for reluctance around quotas was that those who went into Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) roles generally had the shortest tenure of anyone in the HR function. “Because we’re doing a rolling out of new initiatives, commonly known in HR as “initiative du jour”, we never really build on the lessons that we’ve had.”
Beware the disconnect
Gina de George, the global head of D&I at Lendlease since 2014, expresses frustration at the bandying about of aspirational numbers such as “50-50 by 2025”. “It sounds good but I don’t want to hear it anymore,” she notes. “I’ve seen targets set, but not in conjunction with the people who are actually doing the work on the ground: and so that makes it very hard when there’s a disconnect between the decision makers and the doers.”
She said targets needed to take in to account the split of men to women in different segments of the business, and take variances into account. “When you’re working in a business that has in some parts 55% women and other parts 17% women, you do have a need to be more flexible.”
Increasingly, her challenge was to flip the conversation to be about men. “I think men are increasingly excluded or disconnected from the whole conversation around diversity and inclusion and I want them to be a part of it.”
Panelist Matthew Gribble, Regional Managing Director for Michael Page, spoke of the company’s commitment to gender equality, as highlighted by the establishment of [email protected] in 2012. The company had set a target that by 2019, 50% of leaders would be women.
“I’ve seen some male dominated environments out there,” he noted. “I’m really pleased that over the past two years, through the measures that we’ve put in place outside of quotas, we have achieved really significant work. And I’m proud we’ve committed to get to that 50%, and we’re going to do a lot over the next two years to make sure we reach it,” he added.
Grappling with the issue
Richard Knox, Head of HR – Asia Pacific at Ashurst and the final panelist admits he struggles with the topic of quotas. “I have one of those immediate reactions to quotas at an emotional level,” he notes.
“Then my rational brain kicks in with all that I’ve learned, to say we need to explore this further and we need to understand it more.”
He posed a question: once gender quotas are in place, does a debate on other quotas need to take place? “I think that’s a relevant question. I want to understand what we think it will do to our pipeline. Does it detract from all of the momentum and work we’re doing along the pipeline at the moment by putting quotas in at the top?”
Overall, the outcome of gender quotas will likely benefit many men as well. Research suggests that men increasingly want to contribute more to families and their communities as well, and want greater work-life balance, believing their life as a whole can be better as a result. As this happens, men’s personal well-being increases, relationships improve and the collective interests of both genders promise to be enhanced.
Going forward, organisations like The 100% Project call for an improved understanding of barriers to affirmative action policies, enhanced unconscious bias training, and more work to influence the belief systems that reinforce discriminatory practices. It further calls for more open and authentic conversations about the issue: including more openness about addressing our own beliefs and biases. In doing so, more people can live up to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, and “be the change you want to see in the world.”
Read more information on our approach to diversity here.