Workplace diversity is an important topic that deserves more discussion. While there have long been initiatives to get more women involved in higher-level management, most boards are overwhelmingly male. In fact, a rather large number of boards have little or no female representation – and this proves to have a chilling effect on the ability of other women to obtain positions of leadership in those companies. As long as this continues, it may be impossible to achieve many other goals that are related to gender parity in the workplace – including the long-discussed possibility of equal pay.
One possible solution floated for the lack of female representation on corporate boards is a government-mandated hiring quota. Requiring every board to have a certain percentage of female members might be the quickest way to solve that board-level disparity, but it is not without its own pitfalls. There are certainly arguments in favor of taking this step towards correcting a long-standing issue, but there seem to be just as many valid arguments against mandating any kind of quota. It is only through examining both sides of the issue that one can create an informed opinion.
All the Yes points:
- Women are Under Represented on Corporate Boards
- Diversity Makes Business Better
- Quotas are Inherently Helpful
- Putting a Quota in Place Would Help Women
Women are Under Represented on Corporate Boards
According to Stanford Business, women only represent about fifteen percent of the total board members of Fortune 500 companies. Assuming that this number holds true for other businesses, that means that women are drastically underrepresented at the highest levels of the economy. There’s very little to suggest that this is getting better, either – the same article states that it will achieve nearly seventy years for women to be represented proportionally on boards if things continue to progress at current levels. It’s not just that women aren’t being represented well – it’s that there’s been relatively little progress in making sure they are represented.
The poor representation would be bad enough on its own, but there are many businesses that have no women at all on their boards. Many of the giants in the tech world, for example, don’t have a single female board member. These companies consistently create and market products for women and hire female employees, but women are excluded from the major decision making process. This not only makes it harder for female voices to be heard, but it also decreases the likelihood of women being able to find mentors and others to help them reach the top of the corporate ladder. When women aren’t represented, there’s very little chance for this situation to change.
The fundamental flaw of this statement is that it makes the mistake of conflating numbers with representation. It ‘s an absolute fact that there are fewer women on corporate boards and fewer C-level female executives in business, but this doesn’t mean that women are underrepresented. What you really need to look at is the raw numbers of who is working and who is making it to the top of the heap. When you look at things from that perspective, it becomes much harder to say that there’s a shortage of women in leadership roles or even that any action to rectify this would be necessary.
Take a look at the tech industry, for example. A CNET study states that Women make up just thirty percent of the workers in that sector, yet they also hold about twenty-three percent of the leadership positions in companies like Microsoft. That might not be exact parity, but that’s incredibly close. Can you imagine numbers like that fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago? Women have made incredible strides forward in fields that they might not have been able to penetrate only a few decades ago, and for that they should be applauded.
It’s dangerous to look at raw numbers and make assumptions about representation. If you go down that rabbit hole, you’ll have to start making sure that every corporate board in American has an even number of people specifically so that raw number parity can be reached. That’s not only an overreach, but a laughable goal.
Diversity Makes Business Better
Diversity is always something for which a business should strive. It’s not just something that makes a business socially responsible, though – it can impact the ledgers as well. According to Gallup, retail businesses that are more gender diverse tend to make more money than those that are not. This puts gender diversity on a must-do list for any business that actually cares about its profits. Furthermore, it creates a situation in which a failure to promote a better gender balance is actually actively harmful for the company – and any company that leaves money on the table isn’t likely to survive.
If diversity is beneficial, it should hold that diversity at the board level is even better. When women are given a voice in leadership, they’re better able to parlay those valuable insights found at the ground level into company-wide initiatives. Creating a more diverse board gives more room for thought, more impetus for innovation, and a better connection to the people who work in the business. Diversity is an incredible benefit for the any business that chooses to embrace the concept.
It should also hold that if diversity is good for individual businesses, it’s good for the economy as a whole. The things that drive innovation for one company should be able to drive innovation across the board. While there is certainly nothing that says innovation cannot come from a gender-imbalanced board, the numbers don’t lie when it comes to the improvement brought by a more diverse place of work.
Diversity is a good thing. It helps to give more people a voice and it certainly helps to make the workplace fairer. You can’t argue against that – but there’s an argument to be made that diversity doesn’t necessarily make a business better. What makes a business better is a corporate culture that rewards those who work the hardest. Should this result in a more diverse board? In some cases, it should. In others, though, it should not. It’s important that there is a good balance between a need for diversity and promotions based on merit.
There’s also the uncomfortable fact that sometimes diversity leads to less engagement according to Harvard’s Robert Putnam;. Is this a good thing? Even the researcher behind that study would so that it is not. It is, however something that should be studied when one is considering forcing a higher level of diversity via quotas on a business’ leaders. If diversity can hurt as well as help, it should be obvious that forcing it is not always the solution.
Finally, that natural and forced diversity are not the same thing. Putting more women on a board to promote diversity may provide a solution with good optics, but it doesn’t do anything to make the company more accepting or to improve the diversity of those in the lower ranks. Forced diversity is always about perception, and the benefits of diversity that were listed above simply won’t be gained in that kind of situation.
Quotas are Inherently Helpful
Sometimes, it’s not enough to talk about gender diversity. One has to put his or her money where his or her mouth is, and that means actually hiring women. Quotas are inherently helpful because they force businesses to adhere to the lofty goals they talk about in press releases. Simply put, a good quota is a promise that a company will actually care about diversity.
How do we know that quotas are inherently helpful? It’s easy – all we have to do is look at the sectors where quotas are already in place. Look at higher education, for example – not only are quotas in place, but they’ve been defended time and again as a necessity. Today’s world sees more women and more people of color in universities than ever before, and that’s something that’s largely due to the quota system. Likewise, government positions are less overwhelmingly white and male than they have been in the past, and that’s largely due to a government that embraces diversity and puts systems into place to make sure that the workplace remains diverse.
It all comes down to money, though, and the Wall Street Journal writes that even large businesses agree that diversity targets are worth pursuing. Businesses that set targets and quotas are able to move ahead of the natural curve and put more minority voices in positions that make a difference. Simply put, quotas are already embraced as necessities in both the public and private sectors.
There are many reasons why quotas aren’t as helpful for minority groups as one might think, but it’s perhaps best to start with the obvious – quotas aren’t something that have been effectively tested in the private sector. Sure, there are businesses that embrace hiring quotas, but that’s a part of the corporate culture at that business. There’s absolutely no telling how a quota would impact performance across the board in multiple industries and to pretend like it would have overwhelmingly positive results would be disingenuous.
Another article from Forbes states that even those who argue that quotas can be helpful have to be mindful of the drawbacks. Quotas can, for example, be an easy way for a business to impose limits rather than for it to embrace diversity. If every business is required to have one woman on the board, what is stopping businesses from simply creating a token board position and then pointing to that position as its sole gesture towards a more diverse workplace? What’s to stop the minimum percentage from become the maximum amount of minority representation a business will allow? Minds don’t change because they are forced and some people are very good at manipulating the system to make sure that things won’t progress.
It’s not possible to pretend like all quotas are good because that statement is just too broad. Even an admission that a gender quota for boards is good requires several logical leaps. Putting quotas into practice could very well be harmful, yet those in favor want to experiment with the economy in the name of theory.
Putting a Quota in Place Would Help Women
If quotas are helpful and they can help a business to become more productive, it should also be read as true that quotas would help all women in the workforce. As more women gain representation at the top of the ladder, more women will be seen as viable candidates for other roles. Remember, women aren’t just underrepresented as C-level employees – they are underrepresented as leaders and managers throughout most organizations. Once you give a minority voice a place at the table, everyone under them is pulled up. This is a situation where a rising tide really does lift all boats.
All one has to do is to look at businesses that have female CEOs to see the difference in workplace culture. It’s hard to say that a woman doesn’t have a place as a manage or a team leader, for example, if there is already a woman running the company. Mirroring is a basic part of instruction, so setting the tone for any place of work has to involve realistic demonstrations at the top. If there are no women leaders to look up to, there are going to be no examples for women to follow when they are working at lower levels of the company.
Would a quota on boards help women in general? Of course. Not only would it put more women at higher positions, but it would help to get rid of any presumptions that a woman cannot lead. Setting quotas will directly lead to more diverse boards and better gender diversity.
It’s impossible to say what having more female board members will do for women as a whole. Women who will be placed on boards are not the average employees, just as men who make it to that level aren’t average employees. Unless one is looking to have a quota that’s based strictly on gender and not merit, you’ll still see the cream of the crop rise to the top and you’ll still see the average worker stuck in their current position because of multiple factors that may have nothing to do with gender.
What’s even more troubling, according to the The Harvard Business Review, is that diversity movements often have the opposite of their intended impact. If a quota is put into place, the most likely outcome may well be that men double down on holding onto what power that they have – and that women might find themselves even more ostracized in some workplaces.
Perhaps most of all, these quotas hurt women because they take away from their individual accomplishments. If a quota is put in place, it will be easy to dismiss any female board member as someone who got a job only because of diversity regulations. This negates any accomplishment the woman may have and sets a dangerous tone for the rest of the business. Women should be allowed a place at the table and they should be respected for the work that got them there.
First, this assumes that there is a fundamental difference between a woman an a man and therefore women need to be on the board to represent a different (i.e “diverse”) reference point. But if women are different then maybe the cause of women not being numerically equally represented at the higher levels of industry is exactly because of that difference. Maybe corporate culture fits men better than women. In other words, unless you want to say women and men are exactly alike, in which case it would make no difference what amount of males or females you have, you have the job of determining how they are different and if the difference would cause harm if you had more women on your board of directors, for instance. An equal argument might be made for having too many men of course, but the question is a quota for women, not if there are too many men, isn’t it?
Second, let’s say you had a quota system. The problem with quota’s at the top is that the pool of qualified women is too small to reach anything like parity. Why? Because women don’t move up the corporate ladder the way men do. That may be because the corporate ladder is built for men (i.e. it’s been shaped by the dominance of men on that ladder) or it may be that women just don’t desire to move up that ladder as much. Whatever the reason, the pool is smaller. Now when you have too small a pool of candidates for a job you have to lower your standards, don’t you? So to reach parity you would need to reach deeper into the pool of candidates and actually hire less capable women than men (because their are more men available you have stiffer competition for the “male” competition). Sadly, what this does is two things: it weakens the competency of the board, and, more important, reinforces the sense that women don’t belong in the board room by giving men on the board experience not with capable women, but with less qualified ones.
So, a quota on the board? Of course not. Not theoretically reasonable, and not practical either.
Finally, the only argument that makes sense is the one which says, “change corporate culture” to “include” the differences between women and men (the diversity argument). But that assumes there is a difference and if there is nobody has yet laid out exactly what it is and how it would impact a companies ability to compete. No company should be forced to be a guinea pig in the matter, so no quota and let’s just keep on moving forward with making equal pay for equal work the norm.
No, because women might be less keen than men to go into corporate employment.
As you may be able to tell, there’s no easy answer to this issue. There are certainly strong opinions on both sides, with research supporting both sets of claims. Despite the differing opinions, though, one thing is still true – there is a great deal of gender disparity in corporate culture, and without a solution it will take a great deal of time to reach anything approaching parity.
Let us know what you think!