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Why targets won’t get more women into our top jobs – have your say

Quotas or targets?  This question dominated last week’s Diversity on Boards conference as speakers and participants grappled with how to improve gender diversity in Australia’s boardrooms. As the 2-day event kicked off, it seemed that quotas were the odds on favorite: Arni Hole, the director-general of Norway’s Ministry for Children and Equality spoke about the success in Norway of introducing a 40% minority gender quota (meaning boards must have at least 40% representation of both women and men or risk being delisted from the Stock Exchange).  Since the legislation was introduced there has been an increase in female directors from only 6 per cent to 41 percent – in just five years!  Our own Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick suggested quotas might instigate the shift in thoughts and actions necessary for getting women into the top jobs.

Then David Gonski, Chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange, took to the stage.  Now here’s a respected businessman who is regularly referenced as “one of the best”.  His view?  That he’s all for diversity, but he couldn’t possibly support quotas.  Gonski suggested that diversity targets linked to CEO rem and public monitoring would be more effective because this approach would appeal to the competitive nature of leaders, inciting action where a company’s results fall behind those of its peers.  

By way of example, a comparison was drawn to the public reporting of CEO salaries – and the corresponding spiraling of remuneration packages as egos defined in financial terms were suddenly put on public display.  Extending this thinking, Gonski reckons that reporting progress towards self-determined diversity targets would spur companies into identifying sufficient suitable women who could then be appointed on the basis of their own merit rather than Government determined quotas. 

Whether on the basis of Gonski’s reputation or through a belief in his thinking, a clear shift in support towards targets ensued through the remainder of the conference.  

In case all of this talk about quotas and targets means nothing to you, let me try to explain: there are two main schools of thought around measuring and monitoring female participation rates.  Quotas in effect mandate that a certain percentage or number of board positions must be held by the minority gender (which is almost always women); whereas targets are simply that.  Targets are set by the company as a goal to pursue amongst all other company goals – sort of like a key performance indicator against which CEO performance is measured.

But let’s think for a minute about who would be setting these targets or goals: in our top companies 98% of CEOs are men, and 91.7% of all board directors are men.  And the standard profile is pale, male and stale: they are not only all men, but they are white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-aged men who’ve been doing their own thing in their own way for a really long time now.  

Are we seriously to believe that setting a goal for increasing women on boards and in leadership roles is going to be enough to translate to results – and substantial results at that? (remembering that in the 2008 EOWA Census of Women in Leadership showed we are going backwards in these measures!)

I reckon that targets are a flawed strategy because men – by their nature – need much clearer parameters to work within than simple targets or guidelines.  I mean, think about it: when was the last time you set a voluntary yet worthy target for your husband, partner or even a colleague that he approached with enthusiasm and gusto, delivering the results you desired with immediacy and urgency??  While their intentions may be honourable, men are simply not as good as women at getting stuff done unless they absolutely have to. 

Perhaps you’ve experienced the impact of this: you’ve set your man a target of painting the rumpus room or putting in that new garden bed or perhaps just cooking one meal per week… and yet this country is filled with half painted houses, Jim’s Mowing is one of our fastest growing franchises and the fast-food segment has picked up where the men’s good intentions never made it into the kitchen.

In the corporate context, with all the ongoing programs and initiatives and product development and growth strategies, how much air time do we really think diversity targets will get?  How long will it take for this debate to be re-prioritised onto the back burner? (my guess is the GFC will be the first excuse, and there’ll be plenty more thereafter)  And when push comes to shove, will targets actually be set at a level that will make a difference – like the 40% that Norway has come up with?

Men on the whole won’t volunteer to go against the grain; it’s not in their psyche.  And while ever they dominate the voting rights, they know they don’t have to.  So while targets may be a good idea in theory, if we are to see equal representation of women in leadership roles in my lifetime we’re going to need something with a lot more gumption than targets to get us across the line.  

Therefore quotas get my vote… But I’m really interested to know what you think so I’ve launched a sphinxx survey of working women to capture your opinions and share them with the media, companies and watch dogs.

Please have your say – click here to cast your vote. 


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