Can quotas correct boardroom bias for women?

By | March 11, 2014
Christina Patino

Christina Patino

Christina Patino is the Corporate Programmes Coordinator at Bradford University School of Management and recently appeared on BBC Breakfast to debate the issue of having quotas for women on boards. Here she asks if a target for companies to recruit more senior women is enough, or should businesses face penalties to create equality on the board?

The issue of getting more women into board level positions is a hotly-contested issue in the UK and around the world. I joined this debate last week by sitting on the BBC Breakfast sofa in front of 12 million television viewers to discuss whether the UK government should impose quotas on companies to hire more women to executive and board level positions, following the announcement of a new government review.




Vince Cable

Vince Cable

I argued strongly in favour of quotas as it seems like a no-brainer in comparison to targets, for which there are no penalties for non-compliance.  Perhaps this explains why the UK has so far only reached 20 per cent of women on FTSE 100 boards instead of its 25 per cent target for 2015. The Business Secretary Vince Cable is even considering creating all-women shortlists for senior roles in FTSE 200 companies as the Government chases this target.

European equality

I believe we can look to our European neighbour Norway, who in 2003 imposed a quota of 40 per cent of women at board level positions and has since achieved that number.  Rather than Norwegian companies failing due to the promotion of unqualified candidates under duress, these companies have since taken up more thorough and professional hiring practices to find the right candidates and have also become more global, sourcing candidates from outside countries.  Other countries have followed suit including France, Spain, Iceland, Italy, and Malaysia and an EU-wide quota is also being considered.

And what of my home country of the Unites States which famously adopted a system of Affirmative Action as a provision of the 1965 Civil Rights Act?  Of late, the controversial practice of many universities and large corporates diversifying through preferential admission and hiring policies for women and ethnic minorities is slowly getting phased out, which was always the intention once the “levelling of the playing field” was achieved.

While I don’t have any statistical data to back up whether it has indeed achieved its aims, anecdotal evidence has Ied me to believe it has helped a great deal.  I personally know a large number of African Americans and Hispanics from lower socio-economic communities who didn’t perhaps have the most stellar exam marks, but were dedicated and hardworking. Because they were given the benefit of the doubt they have managed to ascend into some very prominent and highly rewarding professions-and have excelled within them.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Additionally, while it wasn’t affirmative action that got Obama into the White House, there were certainly more qualified politicians out there. However, is it not powerful that a black child can now more easily aspire to great things and believe that they, too, can one day be President?







Raising aspirations in women

Survey resultsTo get back to the issue at hand, the formation of role models and female powered networks is hugely important in reversing gender stereotypes and increasing the number of girls that dare to dream to become CEO.

Following the TV debate I was really interested to know how Bradford’s students – the business leaders of the future – felt about the issue of targets versus quotas.  A recent poll by Dr Robert Perrett asked if men make better leaders than women and got some surprising results. In a survey that went out this week to all current postgrad, doctoral and graduate law students, the results were equally as surprising and show I’m in the minority.

The results revealed that about half of students believe there are still barriers to women’s attainment to upper level management, while the other half don’t believe it’s an issue.  Yet, an overwhelming 80 per cent think targets are a sufficient enough measure to bring the numbers up in favour of female representation at the top.

This was largely due to many students (60 per cent) feeling quotas would make any appointment of a woman to a board level position circumspect. However, about 15 per cent believe that while true, the damaged credibility would be worth the overall gain.  A quarter of the 42 students who took part in the poll don’t think that quotas would have any impact on perceptions of female ability.

Effort overcomes barriers

Whatever my personal views, I think the significance of this poll is that it reveals the positivity with which students perceive the corporate world, insofar as there are no barriers to success for those who put in the effort to achieve it. A view shared by guest blogger and FT columnist Heather McGregor.

This finding is all the more impactful given the international composition of the student body who may have a different take on what real barriers to opportunity might look like.  One thing is clear – Bradford University School of Management students don’t want any favours and are prepared to work hard to reach the top.

I still believe the benefits of quotas far outweigh the drawbacks, but I’d welcome your thoughts on the issue and would be interested to know if your business has a target to increase the number of women in senior positions.