You are what you measure, what gets measured gets done….’If we want to change what CEOs care about, we should change what we measure’ (Dan Ariely, HBR 2009). Familiar mantras in management, until we get to the representation of women, and then suddenly, measurement is a dirty word.


Why? Why is it that mention of quotas has everyone running to the hills? In one recent US study, only 25% of women and 1% of men supported diversity quotas.


And judging from the conclusions of an AICD report distributed yesterday ( that’s likely to be the Australian position too. The report discusses the progress being made in board appointments for women, leading the story with a rejection of mandated board gender diversity quotas. Several prominent board chairmen claimed that quotas were not the way to go, that ‘quotas would provide companies with an excuse for bad performance’ and that inexperienced women directors would affect their company’s performance if quotas were introduced. The story reports apparent negatives of Norway’s board quota experience, without stating two key positive facts: firstly, Norwegian companies have achieved 40% representation of women (causing Australia’s ‘good progress’ to pale into insignificance), and in the process, company performance has not deteriorated.


What is the evidence that this concern about company performance is based on? And why did Judith Sloan, Professor of Economics and board member, last year say this - "While there is doubtless some support for quotas among some female directors, many others object to the confusion that would arise should their appointments be seen as filling a quota rather than being made on the basis of merit. Their argument is that feminism is about the equal treatment of men and women, not the elimination of merit-based appointments" (my italics).


The public discourse about quotas misrepresents our current system when it assumes that quotas undermine that most sacred of organisational values, merit. It assumes that merit happens now, yet merit is not the prevailing context for advancement in most organisations.


What’s happening here is that our unconscious bias that women are not suited to leadership is playing out. Our gender schema that says that men are agentic and therefore suited to authority and leadership while women are communal and warm and suited to support roles and caregiving is, without our awareness, undermining our expressed belief that women are capable of holding senior leadership roles and conveying authority.


This is a backlash response, designed to protect the status quo. By misrepresenting the impact of quotas as undermining meritocracy, the heat is turned up, making it dangerous for people to hold a positive position on quotas, because they’re seen to hold an anti-merit position.


It also keeps the discussion at the individual level rather than at the system level: the debate is promoted as a debate about capability, rather than as a system issue in which women are not recognised for their leadership capability.


It’s a myth that quotas undermine merit. Quotas are in fact one way of turning our current flawed advancement and promotional systems into meritocracies. 

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