University Challenge and a lesson on quotas for British business

“Can I quota you on that, Jeremy?” Dafyd Jones, CC BY-ND

University Challenge and a lesson on quotas for British business

“Can I quota you on that, Jeremy?” Dafyd Jones, CC BY-ND

For a cultural benchmark of our nation’s best and brightest, there’s something wrong with the BBC show University Challenge. If you tuned in over the festive period for the seasonal special final, you might have noticed that there were three women among the eight people in the competing teams - that was encouraging. But if you watched on Monday nights for a full season of the regular programme, you might also notice that it’s very much mostly men you’re watching in the competition.

It is a remarkably similar situation in Britain’s corporations, holders of great economic as well as cultural weight, and self-styled paragons of meritocratic performance purity.

University Challenge is openly promoted as a pinnacle of British academic life, but it also houses this clear gender imbalance, especially obvious on the not-infrequent occasions when both teams are all-male and the camera pans away from the nine men on the stage to the audience where we see women watching and supporting.

The chance to appear on the programme is afforded through university and then BBC-led “casting” processes rather than purely on ability to answer obscure questions. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise – we all know that merit in terms of skill, experience or qualifications can be a relatively minor aspect of a selection process, especially when there is this level of competition and reward.

From studio to boardroom

Chief executives of large organisations also claim to operate purist meritocracies – their recruitment and selection systems are designed to ensure the most talented, the hardest working, rise to the top and are rewarded, right? However, oddly, British corporate boardrooms are often as masculine as University Challenge line-ups, and have been for a long time.

Angela Ahrendts. Fortune Live Media, CC BY-ND

When Angela Ahrendts resigned as chief executive of Burberry to join Apple, she single-handedly reduced the proportion of women FTSE 100 CEOs by 33% – in other words, she was one of three. Ahrendts is clearly very good at what she does, but why was she one of only three? Why do large British organisations remain so stubbornly male-dominated at that level? And is it something that a government should do something about, perhaps by introducing quotas for representation on boards?

Quotas are problematic. If a woman like Ahrendts were to be offered a job purely because she is a woman, and told that were the case, it’s easy to image her saying “no thanks” (or something more blunt). She would probably feel insulted and then receive a frosty welcome from other board members who believed they had been appointed on merit, and might feel that the performance purity of their organisation had been diluted.

University Challenge, however, might be ready to bite the bullet and move ahead of corporate boards in reflecting the constitution of society. BBC producers seem finally to have realised there’s a problem with the low number of women competitors (43 from 224 in the past two years) and all-male programmes. Reports claim they might introduce a quota system though they’re also considering whether to simply ask universities to ensure teams represent the student population (55% women at undergraduate, 47% at postgraduate).

This raises the very obvious question. If quotas can be considered in this context, why then not in corporate life, as, most famously, the Norwegian government has done?

Quota, unquota

Economists and researchers with an enthusiasm for econometric analysis and statistical significance usually say quotas would negatively affect corporate performance. They also raise vague objections about equity, meritocracy, and the potential for women to exploit an initiative that would promote their interests above men’s.

Building new leaders, block by block. clement127, CC BY-ND

The students I work with are either hostile (men, mostly) or dubious (women, usually, who recognise the social or cultural challenge that comes from being appointed partly on the basis of chromosomes). However, a guest lecturer some weeks ago said something striking that for me means we need to think very differently.

Kate Jones had a 20-year career at investment firms such as BlackRock and Schroders, latterly in senior positions. She is now an independent consultant specialising in executive coaching in banking and finance, and perhaps more sympathetic to affirmative action than she has been. As Kate told a final year undergraduate group on the subject of boardroom quotas:

I’m torn. On the one hand, the last thing I want is to be given a job simply because I’m a woman. On the other hand, I’m tired of women being excluded from those senior posts because men feel more comfortable with men; preferably men who are like them and like what they like.


This is, surely, the centre of this debate. Anyone who has sat on an interview or appointment panel knows that merit, if it can be clearly assessed, is only one of a range of ways applicants are judged. Stereotyping, snap judgements, gossip, even straightforward prejudice can all play a part. If we lived in a rational, evidence-based meritocracy where we all agreed on what we were assessing and the values we wanted to embody, then there would be no need for quotas.

But we very clearly don’t live in that kind of world, so it seems obvious that quotas would be helpful in reshaping representation to reflect the wonderful diversity of the UK, change macho organisational cultures for the better, and achieve a greater degree of social and professional justice that is not based on dubious notions of purity or performance.

Above all, quotas or affirmative action forces people in positions of power into contact with those they don’t usually engage with – that’s exactly what makes them effective. The actor and comedian Lenny Henry demonstrated this very clearly when he guest edited the BBC’s flagship morning news programme recently. Henry chose to work with an all-Black, Asian and minority ethnic presenting team. Henry’s argument for more positive action in relation to race and the media is compelling and clear. He wants to challenge the dominant white, male perspective through which most of us get our daily news.

When we look at boardrooms, the sources of this form of white, male dominance are many and varied. The homogenising effect of corporate headhunters, for example, on senior executive searches is well documented. Headhunters recommend people they think “look like leaders” for interview, for example. Unsurprisingly, these people tend to be tall, white, middle-aged, heterosexual men – equally predictably, these headhunters are always opposed to the introduction of quotas. Their self-defined position as kingmakers – uniquely skilled finders of allegedly exceptional talent (for a price) - would also come into question.

It all makes quotas look suspiciously like a win-win all round – except, of course for the mediocre or incompetent men currently sitting around boardroom tables talking comfortably about golf, or the white males being appointed to positions of power they’re not the best candidate for because they “look like leaders”.