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Confronting gender inequality beyond quotas

Pressure is mounting globally for women’s equal participation in corporate and public life. As of March 2012, women made up only 3.2% of presidents and chairmen and 13.7% of board seats in European companies…

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spearheaded global push to increase women’s participation in public and corporate life. AAP

Pressure is mounting globally for women’s equal participation in corporate and public life.

As of March 2012, women made up only 3.2% of presidents and chairmen and 13.7% of board seats in European companies. That month, European Commissioner Viviane Reding presented a draft for an EU directive which, if passed, will force all 27 EU member states to introduce laws for a gender quota of 40% in companies listed on the stock markets by January 1, 2020.

Companies that fail to reach the goal would face fines, or reduced subsidies. Whether this directive goes ahead is uncertain, as there is already opposition from 9 of the 27 signatories, who are arguing that governments should determine what or if any sanctions should be applied to companies that fail to improve.

In September, Germany moved closer to enacting quotas when its upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, voted to introduce a legally binding quota of 20% of women on boards by 2018 which would be raised to 40% by 2023. The lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, will now tackle the issue again and draft a legal framework.

Also last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the Equal Futures Partnership along with 12 other founding members including Australia, Benin, Bangladesh, Denmark, Finland, Indonesia, Jordan, the Netherlands, Peru, Senegal, Tunisia and the European Union to focus on women’s full participation in public life and benefiting from inclusive economic growth.

The Equal Futures Partnership was premised on the knowledge of significant gaps for women and girls in the areas of political participation and economic opportunity, amid the realisation that “no country can realise its potential if half its population cannot reach theirs”.

The Partners’ commitment to action includes “opening doors to quality education and high-paying career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields” and “promoting civic education and public leadership for girls”.

As a member of the Equal Futures Partnership, Australia has promised to improve women’s representation and leadership in male-dominated industries such as mining, utilities, and construction; to achieve gender balance on Australian Government Boards by 2015; and to establish a National Centre of Excellence (NCE) to reduce sexual assault and family and domestic violence.

On the whole, it seems that despite the snail-pace movement of gender equality measures, the move to address this — at least at a legal level — is gaining unprecedented pace. This appears to be happening as awareness increases of the pervasive lack of company self-regulation to address gender equality.

Enforcement seems to be becoming the only option, in some form or another, that is perceived as delivering results, albeit at a slow pace.

Cécile Gréboval, head of the European Women’s Lobby (an umbrella group of more than 2,000 women’s associations), observes that the reality is that corporate culture is slow to change due to fear as “it affects the heart of power in business”. She adds: “Quotas may not be a perfect solution” but “no one has come up with a better way of boosting women’s representation at the top echelons of corporate power”. “If quotas work, and women truly achieve equality, then I will be out of a job,” she says. “I hope that happens, but I don’t expect this any time soon.”

If a system can vigorously deliver high levels of retention and promotion, better pay and opportunities for men, but not for women (despite women being better educated than men), one wonders: what is wrong with the system?

When this question was explored as part of a research study from the perspective of dominant forces in the system, it found that leadership, as a concept and a theory, is historically rooted in values that just do not include women. As leadership theories have trickled down to influence how we behave as leaders and regard leadership, the exclusion of women is only natural.

Can the inclusion of women ever be a natural outcome?

The study went on to show that it could, but in an alternative system. The study’s findings proposed a system of co-existence where not only is gender equality possible, but it is superseded by the valuing of each person regardless of gender. The model that emerged is far from the paradigm that we currently operate in.

Perhaps the time has come to seriously consider not more means of enforcement, but how a system can be replaced at its very core.

Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey is the author of Abandoning Leadership for a Better Way of Being for Women and Men which presents the study’s findings and implications of an alternative system of Co-existence for women and men.