Women in Leadership – Are Quotas the Answer?



Having spent the past week at various functions and reading about Women in Leadership, largely due to “International Women’s Day” held on 8th March, 2011, I began contemplating the debate that is raging in Australia about the number of women in Executive and Board positions versus our male counterparts.

For the record, in Australia, the published statistics about women holding Executive Positions and (paid) Directorships is 10.3% and 8.4% respectively.  54% of all companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) have NO women represented on their Boards.

By any standards, in 2011 these are dismal and disappointing figures.

Finding Answers

The figures are so bad; there are calls for legislated quotas for the number of women serving on Boards.  The issue has received widespread commentary and media both from political parties and other leading figures in Australia.

With all the focus, perhaps we need to give closer scrutiny to the reasons behind these simple statistics, and the argument for and against legislating for women in leadership positions.

I fervently believe in gender equality in the things that matter – pay, working conditions, opportunity and choice.  However, do we really need to legislate the number of women in senior and leadership positions?

And if we do, what does that actually deliver?

Some Big Questions

This is a complex issue, and one that will not be resolved in this simple blog.  But I cannot help wondering that if we look at the choice and opportunity part of equality, when it really comes down to it, the two big questions are these:

Do the majority of women actually choose or want to serve at the highest levels in companies, and on Boards?

Do we want to feel that we are in these senior positions because guidelines or legislature dictates it?

Most women I talk to want the choice to go to paid employment or to be able to remain the primary care-giver and home-maker (though unpaid, no less worthy a responsibility).  They also want flexibility in their working conditions.

Which is why, I suspect, that the statistics on women owning businesses are growing.  At the very least, the opportunity to own their own business gives them the choice of how, where, and when they work.

Exercising Real Choice

Women should be able to contribute to the corporate world if they want. But surely they should also be confident that their rise to senior positions is based on merit, experience, and excellence in the workplace.

In my opinion, legislating for a percentage of women on Boards does not satisfy the case for choice, nor does it provide genuine opportunity.

Asking Real Questions

  • So, where does that leave us?
  • In 2011, is corporate society so entrenched in old ways that we resort to making laws to ensure women are represented in business?
  • How do we legitimately get women into leadership positions if they choose to?
  • What needs to happen to bring about this change?

No doubt this is a controversial topic, and there are no right answers.  But contributing to the debate can only help deliver a better outcome for business and leadership.

So what has been your experience with executive leadership? How did the number of women around you impact the decisions and results that you witnessed around you? Would you feel that more women in advanced leadership positions would have positively impacted what you witnessed? Or do you think it matters? I would love your thoughts!

Bookmark Women in Leadership – Are Quotas the Answer?

Brenda Mainland is Director at Survey Matters Pty Ltd
She helps with strategies, leadership, and problem-solving to deliver tangible solutions

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Image Sources: eurekablog.ca

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4 responses to “Women in Leadership – Are Quotas the Answer?

  1. Brenda:
    thx for the post. This topic has been haunting me for 20 years. I have always tried to balance the pros and cons to get a firm opinion on the quota, but my guts still tell me that a regulation does not help the advancement of women. According to my observation, male-dominated boards are happy about every woman they can get to join them (not just for publicity reasons, but for getting another perspective) – but there aren’t many women who want to play the corporate game. JMHO.


  2. Interesting poll Brenda. As much as I would like to see more women in executive leadership, I cannot see how regulation can help. As the previous commenter stated, it does not help the advancement of women. You rightly said that legislating for women on Boards does not satisfy the case for choice. It sends the message that a regulation is the only way we can reach the top: that we’re not good or smart enough to make it on our own merit. Very dangerous precedent to set.


  3. As a female in an executive position and who has held board positions, and as the Mom of a successful female entrepreneur, I strongly disagree with the idea of quotas, government regulations, etc. to ensure that more women are in such roles. I don’t want someone on my leadership team simply because she is a woman; I want the best qualified person to lead and accomplish the vision before us.

    I believe the more we separate ourselves by requiring any special treatment, the more we will remain separate because of that special treatment.

    Boards that I have been involved in are very aware of the need for diversity in order to serve the organization in the best way possible – and that includes diversity of gender, diversity of culture, diversity of thought, etc. One is no more important than the other and none should be legislated.

    Thanks for raising the issue and encouraging the dialogue.


  4. Thank you for sharing these points on women in leadership. I believe there needs to be more of a balance of women execs, and I am thankful for the opportunities I have been afforded in order to launch my own company. In fact, I have been very pleased with Kathleen Ranahan’s expertise on business consulting. She is very insightful and her wealth of knowledge and experience has been a real asset.


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