This post is written in reaction to two articles from The Economist (21st July): (1) Women in the boardroom. The wrong way to promote women: http://www.economist.com/node/18988506 (2) Women in business. Still lonely at the top: http://www.economist.com/node/18988694
The main idea of these two articles is that imposing quotas for women in boardrooms is a bad idea, as “quotas are too blunt a tool for […] a tangled problem” such as gender parity. I show that the arguments advanced by the Economist do not stand as they seem to ignore most on the feminist reflection on the question and dwell on a certain number of platitudes currently available in social and organizational discourses.
Quotas in Europe
Given the enduring rarity of women in the boardrooms, several European countries introduced mandatory quotas. It is Norway in 2003 that broke the ice with the passing of a law obliging all publicly listed firms to reserve 40% of the seats on their boards for women by 2008. Spain passed a similar law in 2007. France passed a similar law earlier this year requiring companies to ensure women have at least 20 percent of boardroom seats within three years and 40 percent within six years. The Netherlands is currently working on a similar law. Last month, European Parliament passed a resolution encouraging member states to pass legislation stipulating that at least 40% of seats on listed companies’ supervisory boards will be reserved for women by 2020.
The Economist’s main arguments against the introduction of quotas
1. “[…] in most rich countries sexism and the lack of role models are no longer the main obstacle to women’s careers. Children are. Most women take career breaks to look after them. Many care for elderly relatives, too. One study found that two-thirds of American women had at some point switched from full-time work to part-time or flexible time to balance work and family. Such choices should be respected. But they make it harder for women to gain the experience necessary to make it to the very top”.
This is a very contorted argument. First of all, it is asserted that it is no longer sexism and lack of role models, but children who account for the rarity of women in top positions. Second, it is implied that it is women who choose to take time off or work part time in order to raise their children or care for the elders (cf. Hakim’s preference theory). But, these arguments implying that women bear the whole responsibility for making such choices, do not take into account the fact that these choices are context-dependent. And currently, this context assigns women the role of child minders as well as most of the household duties (see for example, reports by INSEE in France). So it is all too simplistic to dismiss sexism as a still powerful obstacle to women making it to the top of the organizational hierarchy. In fact, as my interviews with women managers in professional services firms have shown, maternity is still perceived by organizations as a lack of commitment to the firm and firms try to counteract its potential negative effects (for example by putting a cap on young women’s recruitment and promotion). So, when talking children, the Economist is still talking about sexism without acknowledging it. To put it differently, without the existence of sexism and an unequal division of labour in the family, children won’t be an “obstacle”.
I would even venture to ask the question: is having children a ‘genuine choice’? As I plan to write a post one of these days on this subject, for the time being I will only stop to ask you to think about the consequences for these same organizations if women will ever choose en masse not to have children. We are already seeing this tendency in Germany, a country where career and family are deemed incompatible…for women.
2. “What is more, big companies are increasingly global. Many want a boss who has worked in more than one country. Such foreign postings disrupt families; many women turn them down. Many also prefer not to prolong their working day by networking after hours. And many, anticipating a career break at some point in the future, enter fields where their skills will not quickly become obsolete, such as law or human resources. Some lawyers make good chief executives. But firms often want people with financial or operational experience for the top jobs, and these fields are still male-dominated”.
This second argument is not really new. It actually pedals on a similar argument as the first: because of their family involvement, women turn down posts with international exposure as well as prefer sidelining as they anticipate career breaks. While I can agree that not all women want to make it to the top of the hierarchy (this is also true for men!), I cannot agree with the fact that women “prefer” to quit highly satisfactory jobs in term of remuneration and social prestige in order to focus on their family responsibilities. All too often I have seen that women strive to be performers both in the professional and in the private sphere.
3. “Quotas force firms either to pad their boards with token non-executive directors, or to allocate real power on the basis of sex rather than merit”.
This is such a naïve statement – being worried that women will be promoted because they are women and not because of their qualifications. But, this is what currently happens with men. As shown by many studies, men are often promoted through informal networks that ensure the reproduction of homo-sociality and the marginalization of women who more often than not do not belong to these networks. Has the article published in 2007 also in the Economist – A tiger in the boardroom. Why golf is the sport of bosses (http://www.economist.com/node/9464221) been forgotten? This article was highlighting the importance of golf as a communication hub and of golf bodies as a recruitment pool for top management. Moreover, it made the point that “women are almost entirely absent from it—except as wives, girlfriends or even groupies”.
Immediate effect of the quota in France
Women’s rarity in positions of responsibility is a current problem of Western countries. Thus, in France, women represented only 10.2 % of members of boards of directors of CAC 40 companies, according to a study by Capitalcom (2008). This situation was similar to that of the United Kingdom, where women represented 11.7% of members of boards of directors of FTSE 100 firms (Sealy et al., 2008).
These last two years the number of women in the boardrooms doubled in France to reach an impressive 20.8 % in 2011 (Capitalcom, 2011), whereas in UK the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards is 12.5%, showing a three year plateau (Vinnicombe Obe et al., 2010). So what happened? It was undoubtedly the effect of the mandatory quota law because previously to the discussion and the passing of this law, the number of women in the boardrooms had stayed for years around 10% in France as it does actually in the UK. This law actually gave a boost to the number of women gaining access to the boardrooms. Of course, it may be too early to rejoice about the positive changes
In conclusion, I think that even if quotas may not be a perfect tool, and may have the negative consequence of stigmatizing women that make it on the board following the introduction of mandatory quotas. However, as shown by the case of France, it has the effect of ‘defrosting’ the pool of talented women who were previously kept on hold by promotions through the old-boys networks.
Capitalcom (2011), Le “Lady boom” dans les Conseils d’Administration s’accélère en 2011 ! Doublement du taux de Mixité dans les Conseils en 2 ans, http://www.capitalcom.fr/Documents/CP%20Femmes%20AG%202011.pdf
Capitalcom (2008), Les tendances majeures des Assemblées Générales de 2008, http://www.capitalcom.fr/Documents/080617%20Newsletter.pdf.
Vinnicombe Obe, S., Sealy, R., Graham, J. & Doldor, E (2010), The Female FTSE Board Report 2010. Opening up the Appointment Process, http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/research/documents/FemaleFTSEReport2010.pdf, International Centre for Women Leaders, Cranfield School of Management.
Sealy, R., Vinnicombe Obe, S. & Val Singh, D. (2008), The Female FTSE Report 2008. A Decade of Delay, International Centre for Women Leaders, Cranfield School of Management.