The Questions of a Quota System to See more Women on Boards

The theme of International Women’s Day 2016 is ‘Pledge For Parity’. It is a call to action for every man and woman to commit to taking a real step towards helping to achieve gender parity in whatever way we can – whether it is helping women and girls achieve their ambitions, developing more flexibility in the workplace, allowing women to return to work, promoting women in leadership roles, and of course pay parity.

Over the years the movement toward gender parity has been rather like a foxtrot slow: slow, quick, quick, slower. The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn’t close entirely until 2133.[1]

International Women's DayInternational Women’s Day was first observed on the 8th March in 1914. British suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square in London.

International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time by the United Nations in 1975. Then in December 1977, it was agreed for the United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.

This International Women’s Day we do indeed have much to celebrate but we still have a long way to go. I want to focus on the issue of women on boards, or rather the lack of them, and how we get to something that reasonably represents the gender balance in the general population.

Elizabeth Proust, on her appointment as chair of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), has set 2018 as the deadline for 30 % of board positions in the nation’s top 200 companies to be filled by women.[2] And whilst not previously being in favour of using quota’s to achieve these targets, she sent a message to companies that if they don’t act then they may eventually be required to by government legislation.

But there has been some progress. According to an ASIC report on the 31st January 2016 43% of all new board appointments were women, up from the 22% for same time in 2012.[3] And the latest percentage of women on ASX 200 boards is 21.9% a whopping increase from 2009 when that figure was 8.3%

There is plenty of debate out there for and against using quotas, but the conversation is not that simple and needs to acknowledge a range of issues. These include the availability of child care so that women can return to work if they want to as well as providing a flexible family friendly work place, giving equal opportunity to allow women to progress their careers. As Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook puts it, it is about women gaining the confidence and belief in themselves to “lean in.” Organisations must also focus on creating an executive pipeline, one that recognises the skills and talents of female employees and what they bring to the table, providing mentoring and training opportunities.

Those that disagree with quotas argue that chairs of companies and recruiters just need to look harder, that there are candidates out there, and that we just need to break the cycle and create role models for others to follow on. Others argue that quotas will simply correct existing discrimination.

There are some lessons to be learnt from Norway about board quotas. In 2003 Norway passed laws requiring companies to have 40% women company board members by 2006. Their rate of women on boards is currently 35.5%. Whilst not 40% it’s pretty impressive compared to Germany (20%), USA (17%), Australia (22%), and Japan (3%).

The arguments initially raised against quotas in Norway were: lack of suitably qualified women, interfering with the market forces, and a top down focus rather than a bottom up approach. Indeed the move did initially create a lack of women in positions just under the board level, thereby reducing the availability of women to follow on. However 10 years on, the legal requirement for quotas in Norway is now a non-issue.

Germany this year passed laws on quotas of 30% rising to 50% by 2018. They may have a woman Prime Minister in Angela Merkel, but none of the top 30 German companies have a women CEO.

For all the talk of tokenism and appointments for numbers rather than talent, quotas would be a quicker and more effective way to address gender imbalance on boards, particularly if it is accompanied by other initiatives to modify workplace culture. It’s by no means a perfect solution but we have spent a lot of years trying to encourage change, and perhaps it’s time for action.



[1] International Women’s Day. 2016. Accessed 6/2/16, via

[2] ABC News. 2015. Quotas may be needed to boost female representation. Accessed 6/2/16, via

[3]Australian Institute of Company Directors. 2016. Accessed 6/3/15 via,

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