Women in the Boardroom: Would Quotas Meet the Challenge of Getting Women on Board?

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Around 60% of university graduates in the US and Europe are women. Yet according to the 2011 Catalyst Census, in 2011, women held 16.1% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies, and in both 2010 and 2011, less than one-fifth of companies had 25% or more women directors, while about one-tenth had no women serving on their boards.

Although the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) diversity disclosure rule requires companies to provide new disclosure about “the consideration of diversity in the process by which candidates for director are considered for nomination,” this does not automatically address their attitudes regarding gender.

In Europe a radical solution has been mooted. Following the publication of ‘Women in economic decision-making in the EU: Progress report’, which revealed just one in seven board members at Europe’s top firms was a woman (13.7%), the EU Commission launched a public consultation seeking views on possible action, including legislative measures, to redress the gender imbalance on company boards.

But are quotas the solution to ensure women are assured a place on the board? Workplace Law’s Human Resources Consultants have strong feelings on how best to address this gender gap.

Says HR Consultant, Les Patton:

“Ask how many women want to be on the board, and then ask them what’s stopping them.”

“That’s not meant to be a facetious question. It’s needed to find out if there really has been any direct discrimination. Are women regularly applying for promotion and getting rejected, or do they not bother because they perceive discrimination will take place?”

Head of HR, Suzanne McMinn, is vehemently against the idea of introducing any sorts of quotas:

“I believe it would undermine every woman who is recruited on this basis – the question being, are they there just to fill a quota or can they actually do the job?”

“It is difficult enough for women to get to board level and once they are there they don’t want to have to battle to protect their integrity to do the job too!”

The best approach she advises is to understand why women aren’t getting to the Board – is it a result of direct or indirect discrimination?

Says McMinn:

“Instead of getting our ‘cookie cutters’ out and replacing like for like each time we should be encouraging applications from under-represented groups – not just gender biased, it should capture any group.”

So maybe determining what companies perceive as diversity would be a good place to start.

About the Author:

This article is written by Sara Bean, Consulting Editor at Workplace Law.

Sara Bean has been writing and reporting on workplace issues throughout her editorial career, reflecting her interest in health and well-being in the workplace. She has written numerous articles on occupational health, health and safety, employment law and general business issues.

Workplace Law Human Resources provide advice and support for employers on all aspects of HR and employment law. We are an established licensed CIPD training provider.