Boards and quotas – For or against them ?

There was an excellent blog post from Nilofer Merchant at Harvard Business Review recently, entitled Quotas for women on Boards are wrong.

In it, she argues against quotas for women to access company Boards. Some of her arguments are very convincing. In particular, I agree that we should focus on bringing more “board readiness” for all people being or considering to be on a Board.

Here is the comment I posted in answer to her article :

“I don’t necessarily agree. As female, I don’t like the idea of gender-based quotas, but this may be a necessary step.

Consider how quotas were enforced in politics in the european Nordic countries one generation ago. My friends there told me : “Quotas allowed people to get used to see women in positions of power and decision-making. They saw that women were neither better nor worse than men at politics. Some were great, most were average, and some were truly bad. After one generation of quotas, it has now become normal for us to see women in high levels of politics, and gender is not taken into account any more when we prepare for elections.” At the same time, women could see that they were just as able as men in politics, and that this was a viable option for them, so now more women choose to go into politics. Quotas are gone, and women are still being represented as a healthy portion of elected representatives, also at very senior levels.

Saying that women are sitting in multiple Boards is the wrong comment. Most Board members sit in multiple Boards, there are many reports analysing that in the US and Europe. I believe that the Non-Executive Director line of work should become more professionalised, with certifications, governance rules about how many profits and not-for-profits one can sit at the Board of, and to make it a full time job. My experience interacting with Board members showed me that they could all benefit from spending more time in the company to interact with the management and employees, learning about the industry through conferences and meetings with competitors, and also learning about Finance/Audit and Compensation & Benefits for those who sit on specialised Committees. It would greatly facilitate decision-making as well as the advisory role that Board members should deliver.”

Nilofer replied, asking in essence how do these women feel when they know they got their seat at the table through the quota.

My response : “I don’t know of stats or surveys about how they feel. Maybe they’re a bit frustrated in the first few minutes, or upset that they needed a quota to be where they are. But also, maybe they’re happy to finally be given a chance to prove they can do as good as males ? Maybe they focus on what they can do and how they can have an influence on the organisation they serve, rather than how they feel about the circumstances in which they were appointed ? Maybe they’re happy to serve as role models to other females and minorities, and exert all effort to be at their best ?

We all naturally go towards people who are like us, because they are easier to relate to and interact with, and the relationship can feel more comfortable to establish from the beginning. I recently read an article that claimed this was one of the factors explaining why all these white males tend to be sitting with other white males on company boards. That may be a good psychological explanation.

In the US, how do the students who access university thanks to a quota feel ? How do some of the black or mixed males feel when they are given a chance to lead a team in companies that want to compete in government bids in South Africa ? How do Emiratis or other GCC Nationals feel when they are hired thanks in part to their nationality when competing with more experienced expats ?

I want to believe in goodness, and so I want to believe that in most cases, they simply don’t dwell on the reason why they are here, and focus on proving to the world that they are worthy of the chance they were given. And over time, hopefully these quotas won’t be necessary any longer.

…And by the way, being appointed through a quota does not necessarily imply that the person is not capable in her own right, of holding the job…. It just means the pool of talent where to find the jobholder is more strictly defined.”

So what do you say ? Should there be more diversity in Boards ? Should we go through quotas ? For example, in the UAE, certain prescriptions exist regarding the number of UAE Nationals on Boards of local and government organisations. In effect, these are quotas, but nationality-based, not gender-based. Do you think they are a good thing ? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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