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Leading directors and commentators put quotas firmly back on the agenda – changing attitudes of men and women force a rethink on quotas

Two weeks ago the Australian Institute of Company Directors issued a press release talking up the effectiveness of initiatives implemented by it, the ASX and other organizations in breaking down the gender equity divide. So far in 2010, 51 women have been appointed to ASX 200 boards, compared to only 10 in 2009 and the proportion of female board members is now 10.3 per cent, compared to just 8.3 per cent at the beginning of this year.  So why is it that – at the same time – a number of high profile directors and commentators have come out saying that progress is still too slow and that the situation won’t change enough until quotas are introduced?

I’ve long been on the record as a supporter of quotas… largely because I don’t want to wait a lifetime to achieve gender equality in leadership.  Now Heather Ridout and Elizabeth Proust – two of Australia’s most senior businesswomen – have just gone on the record to say they used to be against quotas, but now they are in favour of them.

Ridout is CEO of Australian Industry Group as well as a handful of government bodies; Proust is chair of Nestle Australia and a director of Perpetual, as well as a former senior executive of ANZ. According to an article by Alan Kohler on Business Spectator, each of them now says she is disappointed with Australia’s progress towards getting more women on boards and thinks that it needs to be forced.

In the same article Kohler says that he’s in favor of quotas because – contrary to many of those who oppose quotas, he believes it could improve the “quality” of boards.  Kohler notes that many opponents “argue that forcing the recruitment of women to boards would lower their quality, as if men are inherently better, when in fact gender is completely irrelevant one way or another.”

He goes on to argue are two practical reasons, apart from basic fairness, for pushing the pace of change and forcing companies to recruit more women to their boards:

1. The number and quality of female graduates coming into companies and moving into management is now at or approaching 50 per cent. The proportion at the top needs to catch up;

2. Women are different to men. They bring a valuable perspective to boards that can only be described as female (better at collaboration and risk assessment for a start) and one or two women is simply not enough to achieve the best result.

At the same time, right here in our own backyard, Denise Aldous – our own Ascend speaker extraordinaire, professional director and former head of the World Bank’s finance arm – has gone on the record in her native New Zealand to voice her support for quotas in a call for governments to correct the “backward steps in gender equality since the ‘80s”.  In this interview Denise confirms the barriers to gender equality that many assumed had been fixed long ago are still firmly in place and will only be removed with interventions such as targets and quotas, because what gets measured gets done.

Whether or not you have a strong view either way, it seems quotas are firmly back on the agenda and it’s certainly time to rethink your position on this long-running debate. 

I’m interested to know: has your position changed? In favor or against? Or have you been a long and ongoing supporter or opponent of quotas?  I’d love you to post your comments here on the sphinxx blog as we follow this trend.  

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