To quota, or not to quota? What’s really up with the numbers approach to gender equality?

I’m writing about quotas today because it’s something that has been occupying a lot of my mind-space lately. Part of my work is to talk to people about gender equality and encourage them to think about different ways to get actively increase gender diversity in their leadership. What I’ve realised when speaking to people is that there are a lot of misunderstandings about quotas, why they exist and whether they are effective or not. Let’s start with what exactly the problem is that we’re trying to solve with quotas: Gender inequality in the workplace, in particular, diversity in positions of leadership or influence in an organisation. A lot of organisations may not have an issue recruiting female talent, however getting them to stay is generally where the problem lies.

So, what is a quota and how does it help?

A quota in the workplace is a human resources policy that ensures a certain percentage of employees are from an under-represented part of the workforce. This percentage is agreed upon by senior management and is either implemented as a goal (nice to have) or enforced as an actual policy and tied to management KPIs.

One school of thought says that the gender gap is huge and the only way to make it smaller is by forcing it. This not only puts the systems in place to cater for a diverse workforce, but also forces organisations to address biases within their workplace. The main recurring reasons from my research into why there is a huge gender gap are: 1) there are hardly any female role models or mentors; and, 2) people with power in hiring decisions tend to hire people like them (either consciously or unconsciously).

But, do you really want to be in a position where you’re in an organisation because of a quota? Most people would say no to this. And believe me, I was one of them.

No thanks. Quotas aren’t for me.

So you’ve decided that quotas aren’t for you. Yours is an organisation that hires people based on merit. Great - Good for you. Case closed. But before we wrap things up here – what if I told you the organisations that decide against quotas because they believe in pure merit, organisations that believe they ‘only hire the best person for the job’, are kidding themselves. Organisations with this approach tend to not only be worse at increasing diversity relative to those that have quotas imposed, but, in some cases, have even gone backwards.

Why? The answer is bias. As humans, we all have bias. This is one thing that quotas actively deal with, and deal with well. History shows no matter what your recruiting policies, without quotas you cannot adequately deal with bias.

Take our friends at Google for example. Judith Wiliams, head of Google’s unconscious bias program recently caught out their own Chairman, Eric Schmidt (in public) of – you guessed it - bias.

The theory is that if you are conscious about unconscious bias then diversity should just occur naturally if the candidates are worthy and because of merit.

Enter, the merit paradox. It turns out that both men and women see ‘merit’ as being a male trait. This means that if you are awarding leadership positions based on merit, there could be a much higher chance of you awarding these positions to men than women, even with the best of intentions. But wait, there’s more. In leadership, actions that can be described as assertiveness and self-confidence are generally seen as great traits for male leaders. These same actions in a female leader are more likely to be described as pushy, arrogant or abrasive. “When male executives speak up, they receive 10% higher competence ratings; when female executives do the same, their ratings from their peers are 14% lower. Similarly, when male employees offer ideas, they receive higher performance evaluations; when women offer the same ideas, managers’ perceptions of their performance remain unchanged” (The Economist, 2015). A man is therefore likely to be seen as more competent for a position than a female peer. Crazy, huh? (There are numerous studies and articles on this topic. You can check out Harvard Business Review and NY Times as a start).

So what is bias? Our mind consciously and subconsciously categorises things.. It’s just the way it works. It makes it easier for us to process information clearly and quickly. Check out this great video from Google explaining more.

And, so?

Until recently, I was always against quotas. In part, because I didn’t believe in applying such an approach so rigidly as to make it policy. But mainly, I would never want to be employed somewhere because I helped get a tick on someone’s gender ratio KPI. Like most people, I want my success to be driven by my achievements – regardless of what’s below my waist.

That being said, I have not come across any other way of adequately dealing with bias that addresses these issues. Networking events and initiatives specifically designed for women by organisations is nice, and important to do, however you will never solve a problem that affects everyone by only working with one half of the population (women), and not enforcing a goal with a policy behind it.

Bias, the wage gap and inequality are all pervasive issues that require more organisations to put their money where their mouth is before we’ll make any real progress in the immediate term. In this regard, it is reassuring to see organisations such as Salesforce doing exactly that and Marc Benioff’s recent announcement of how he is directly addressing the wage gap within his own organisation is a great start. Hopefully more companies will follow suit…

“I used to be against quotas, but we need to reflect reality. And reality is that not merely enough women are in high positions across Europe today. Maybe you could say that it’s a necessary evil,” Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, chair of the Parliament's Committee on Women’s Rights and gender Equality.

If you want some more reading about the topic and what you can do in your organisation, check out this piece by Max H. Bazerman written for the Harvard Business Review.

You can also read:

Has your organisation come up with any ideas, other than quotas? Are you in an organisation that implements quotas? What are your experiences? I'd love to hear what you think about this.

[accordion id="my-accordion"] [accordion_item title="Pop Quiz: Test your bias!" parent_id="my-accordion"]Quiz 1: Acting on an anonymous phone call, the police raid a house to arrest a suspected murderer. They don’t know what he looks like but they know his name is John and that he is inside the house. The police bust in on a carpenter, a lorry driver, a mechanic and a fireman all playing poker. Without hesitation or communication of any kind, they immediately arrest the fireman. How do they know they’ve got their man?

Here’s another one: Quiz 2: A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”

The Answers: When I first heard both of these riddles, I’ve got to admit I was completely stumped. Both of these riddles highlight something important. We all have some kind of bias. Honestly, with the murderer riddle, I couldn’t come up with any useful ideas about how they knew they got the right guy. I assumed the carpenter, lorry driver, mechanic & fireman were all men and couldn’t get past that assumption until I had to look up the answer. Read the riddle again, taking that assumption out. Immediately it becomes obvious as to how the police could know it was the fireman with such certainty (Answer: the rest are all women).

The surgeon riddle, I was a bit more creative with. I thought maybe the surgeon was a relative (*I was so close!*), so maybe an uncle (*wrong*), friend of the dad (*wrong*), or maybe the dad was gay, so the boy had two fathers (*also wrong*)? Answer: The Surgeon is the boy’s mother.

Anyway, in both of these examples, it shows how easy it is for bias to influence your way of thinking. I work in the sector and try to promote gender equality with almost everything I do. And even I couldn’t get past my bias. [/accordion_item] [accordion_item title="Useful Definitions" parent_id="my-accordion" open="true"]

Unconscious bias

I love this simple definition by Google (the company, not the search engine) that pretty much sums it up. “Unconscious biases influence our actions every day, even when—by definition—we don’t notice them. These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions. We’ve evolved to trust our guts. But sometimes these mental shortcuts can lead us astray, especially when they cause us to misjudge people”.


Second-generation bias (Harvard Business Review, 2013)

“Research has moved away from a focus on the deliberate exclusion of women and toward investigating “second-generation” forms of gender bias as the primary cause of women’s persistent underrepresentation in leadership roles. This bias erects powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.” You can read more here.


"The Facts"

  • In 2012 women in Australia comprised 15.4 per cent of non-executive directors of the ASX200 companies and held 9.2 per cent of executive positions in the top 500 companies. (The Courier Mail)
  • In France quotas have lifted the percentage of women directors in the top 17 companies from 7.2 in 2004 to 25% in 2012 (The Courier Mail).
  • In 2014 women comprise only one in ¬five parliamentarians and just 27% of judges worldwide. A mere 22% per cent of senior managers in economic and strategic positions in the European Union’s public sector are women. (2014 OECD Forum on Women's Leadership in Public Life)
  • 26 women now lead as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; that’s up from zero in 1995. But, in fact, the 104 congresswomen only make up 19% of Congress and the female CEOs are only 5% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. (The Economist)
  • Despite the fact that over 60 per cent of university graduates are female, only 18.6 per cent of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in the EU are women and less than four per cent of these companies have a female chief executive officer. (The Parliament Magazine)
  • 24% is the average global gender pay gap (UN Women)
  • Over their lifetimes, women in Sweden and France can expect to earn 31 per cent less than men; this figure is 49 per cent for women in Germany and 75 per cent for women in Turkey (UN Women)