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Gender quotas in the workplace. Why we need them

I was asked to participate in a debate regarding gender quotas in the workplace. I had 10 minutes to explain my case and an extra 2 for closure after the Q&A.

I recorded myself to practice and because all that passion and research deserved to be shouted from the roofs! So here it is, in video and written for those of you willing to challenge their views (maybe reinforce it!) about this controversial topic!

And here is the transcription for those that rather read! And with links!

I have to start with a very important note, I don´t like quotas either. Who would? quotas are a very clear admission of guilt that our systems and processes haven´t worked. But the truth is that they haven´t.

To make an easier analogy, I don´t know many people who love the idea of driving or speeding fines, and literally nobody that would like to bet their road security on the idea that there are fines in place. No, we educate, we teach kids, we require an exam to drive, we put adverts on TV about the importance of never drinking and driving or speeding and we really hope that the majority of the results come from prevention and education. But because that is not enough, and because it’s a subject that really matters, we implement other measures, punitive measures, to persuade even more and make sure we stay on the right path.

Quotas are not dissimilar, they are not instead of, in fact, they work much better when they work along with other measures, but with painfully slow changes it is time to take an extra step.

I think to make my case, I need to start with a 2-minute explanation of the often unseen, but very real, unconscious bias that women suffer in the workplace 

There are 4 key kinds of unconscious bias:

  1. Performance bias: women’s performance tends to be underrated. That is why this year, when one of the most elite universities in France couldn´t conduct the oral exam due to COVID and had to rely on the anonymous written exam, their admission of women rose to 80%, doubling the average 40% of the previous years. Women are on average 30 percent less likely to be called for a job interview than men with the same characteristics
  1. Attribution bias: Women are less credited for success but blamed more for failure, even when they are working in mixed couples. Men interrupt women up to 3 times more than men, but not only that, women also interrupt other women much more than they would interrupt a man. No wonder women´s confidence takes a hit, which is clearly obvious in the fact that men generally apply for a job when meeting 60% of the criteria, while women tend to wait until they tick all the boxes.
  1. Likeability bias: In the famous study case made in Columbia university, two identical CVs were given to students, one under the name Heidi and the other under Howard. the students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. However, Howard was judged to be likable and a good colleague. Heidi, however, was seen as aggressive, selfish, and not someone who would be a team player - someone they'd less like to work with. This bias is not only fascinating but it’s also a catch 22 situation that unfortunately extremely difficult for women to overcome - a woman´s likeability crashes with her assertiveness, but if she is too nice, she is perceived as less competent. 
  1. Affinity bias: we gravitate towards people that are like us, that look like us. Because of that, mentoring and sponsorship tends to happen between the same gender and same race, and because men hold more powerful positions, the structure is not very welcoming to organic change.

These are the 4 core biases, but we should also mention maternal bias, (which affects even women that don´t have or want kids) and of course how race, disability  and other biases all multiply each other in the form of double discrimination and intersectionality.

An understandingof biases at play here is crucial to understanding why we need quotas - before we accuse quotas of not being  meritocratic, we need to start by stating that the current system is NOT either – it is inherently flawed. Quotas are not about erasing men´s merits, actually, this isn´t about men at all, it is about removing obstacles and leveling the playfield for women. This is not about what men will have less access to, it is about what women will finally start having access to?

I have met a total of zero men that give accredit any amount of their success or position to their gender. When a man gets a job, we don´t question it, but when it is a woman, we do. It is not only the quotas and it is definitely not new. Who has she slept with? I wonder who is her father? She must be our diversity hire? The fact that we give more value to gender than to capacity ONLY in women reinforces, instead of diminishing, the need for quotas. Maybe once the representation stops being so small we will stop picking up on them as individuals defined by gender

One of the big concerns about quotas is, indeed, tokenism. Please note that not me, if anybody is specifically looking for a young woman to bring diversity to their non-executive board then please contact me! But I do know that there are women saying that they would hate to be chosen for a job because of their gender. Well, I happen to know even more women who are tired of not getting the job at all because of the same reason: women who are legitimately complaining about gender discrimination, lack of role models, harder access to mentoring and sponsorship, the famous glass ceilings. That is happening today and have the data to back it up... Isn´t it a current, proven and existing problem more urgent to solve than a hypothetical one?

Why women are pushed to have the guilt of questioning if maybe there was a man more capable than them that they are "stealing" the job from? How many men are doing the same exercise or even asking themselves the questions despise the amount of energy, time and money spent trying to raise awareness about that reality?

The most diverse companies are already ahead of the game, the companies that value diverse talent are already implementing proactive measures without fear of penalties. Women in those companies feel valued and respected for their merits but, and this is important, ALSO for being women, with no shame in that. If we’re not seeing color, gender, or disabilities then we are not able to see the way the society is affecting them and it makes it harder to be an active part of the solution. Nowadays if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

The other companies, the ones in which women feel tokenised or delegitimised, are the ones that most desperately need the quotas, the same way that the speeding fines only penalise those who can´t be convinced by common sense, education and prevention. Once the number of women board members in those companies raises towards the 40% target proposed by the EU, the group will achieve a strength that makes it more difficult to undermine their voices, and if recruited properly it should be very difficult not to see their talent. At 40% representation, a group is no longer marginalized. Simply having enough women is the solution for the potential negative stigma, while adding only one or two women leads to tokenization and delegitimization.

If you have to hire that percentage if you know that with those numbers they are going to have a say I am sure you would get out of your way to make sure that you hire a competent one, the same way you do with men. And the same as with men, you might not always get it right. If it doesn´t work, well, fire and rehire. And if it doesn´t work either, then it is time to ask yourself why. Are you hiring the correct ones? Are you looking for them in the right places? Is your business attracting that talent? Basically, treat them the same that you would do with white men, AKA ‘the human neutral’.

I really, really refuse to believe that there are not enough talented intelligent women that want well paid non-executive jobs. Are we claiming that there is no talent or no interest? Are we claiming that men are so superior to women that there is no problem whatsoever on finding them for those positions but it is mission impossible when it is for women?

Women’s participation at higher education level has now reached 56.6%, compared to only 44.1% for young men and getting consistently better grades all through school and university, you would expect a pool pretty full of good candidates at least as competent as their masculine counterpart.

what research has shown is that people have prototypes about the ideal worker, or the ideal leader, which is typically male. Recruiters need to expand their idea of an ideal candidate beyond the male prototype and create a larger pool of qualified female candidates. It is proven that women are hired more on past achievements whilst men are hired on future potential. Without prior experience in boardrooms, it is simply even more difficult for women to compete, as their potential doesn´t seem to be taken into account. We need mechanisms in place to redress this imbalance.

If we’re looking for a few good reasons as to why we need to shift the balance in the boardroom, there is plenty of proof:

In the independent report by Deloitte about women in the boardroom they affirm that Studies have repeatedly shown that increasing diversity is not only the right thing to do for an organization’s culture, but thatit also leads to better business outcomes. Increased diversity leads to smarter decision-making, contributes to an organization’s bottom line, and powers innovation, among other benefits. 

It has also been proven that there is a direct correlation between have more women board members and stonger environmental and philothantopic performance.  We all win! And it is often argued that financial performance improves too. Even putting the money argument money aside, I don’t think there is any doubt that more diversity leads to better-informed decisions. 

As perfectly put in this article from Gender and Economy exploring this same topic "In interviews of board members in the US and Europe, it appeared that there is hostility toward quotas in countries that don’t have them but actually strong enthusiasm for quotas in countries that do have them. In other words, only those who were unfamiliar with quotas thought they were a bad thing. Indeed, when examining the lived experiences of board members in Norway, there was a strong narrative of change. While directors in the Norwegian companies had initially strongly opposed quotas, once quotas were imposed by the government, the directors eventually changed their minds. According to these directors, their fears were unfounded, and, after a period of transition, they felt that the increased representation of women on boards actually improved overall governance and decision making"

We are always scared of the change, we are scared of the system breaking, but what if the system is already broken? What if it’s not working? If we do the same things we will get the same results.

I believe that we are ready to move on. I believe that we are ready to admit that what’s in place if not good enough and decide, collectively, that this is important. That it matters enough to go the extra step, even if it seems difficult to implement, even if it causes discomfort, or maybe precisely because it causes it. If we trusted women and their capacity, we wouldn´t be scared of having to hire more of them, of having to listen to more of them on the boards (I mean, 40% of the non-executives board members on the listed companies is hardly a massive ask)

I too want quotas to be redundant, I want them to come and then go, and to be part of a much broader tool kit starting from kids education and moving forward in every aspect of life. But while we live in a society in which there are more CEOs in the FTSE 350 called Peter than there are women, we can´t ignore the fact that something doesn´t add up, we can´t keep claiming that the progress will naturally come, we can´t afford to leave 51% of the population behind and keep calling them and treating them as a minority. 

Let´s regulate quotas, let´s implement them properly, let´s educate ourselves, and let´s join those countries that have done it, are now grateful for them. Not because it is a magic wand that will cure sexism, but because it will add more diverse voices in the table where decisions are been taken, and I genuinely believe that one conversation at a time, that is how we will change the world.

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