For too long, leading companies have lacked female representation in their highest ranks and in senior leadership positions. It’s a pervasive problem that you see time and time again, in virtually every sector of business.
Some progress has been made in recent years, but it’s been slow. One 2018 report by Deloitte (download required) found that women held just 16.9% of board seats globally that year. While this was a 1.9% increase from 2017, at this rate, it will take more than three decades to reach gender parity in boardrooms around the world. In the same study, women were also found to hold just 4.4% of CEO positions and 12.7% of CFO roles. And when you consider the fact that the pandemic widened gender gaps, I find this data especially disappointing.
As a founder and CEO, I believe our workplaces aren’t doing a proper job of reflecting the world around us. This had led many companies to start adopting and promoting quotas for hiring more women and other diverse candidates. Although this can seem like a leap forward on the surface, I’d like to share some of my own thinking behind quotas that can complicate this idea, as well as highlight some of the other ways I think companies can support the professional growth of women.
The Challenge With Quotas
I’ve seen companies big and small share impressive stats about how many women are in their ranks, and quotas have certainly become the topic of so much discourse focused on elevating women and hopefully creating more opportunities for them to succeed. However, I’m personally not in favor of setting hiring quotas for women. While I know this is not a typical stance when it comes to elevating women in the workplace, consider:
According to the World Economic Forum, “Quotas may be a quick fix to boosting female representation on boards, but they do nothing in and of themselves to remove barriers preventing many women from rising up the corporate ladder in the first place.” Bias and a lack of flexibility for working mothers are just some of the challenges women often face in work environments.
Furthermore, there have been efforts in recent years to require companies to include a certain percentage of women in leadership roles and on their boards. But in Norway, for example, where a law was passed in 2003 requiring women to make up a certain percentage of public company boards, quotas had failed to increase the overall number of female executives or decrease the gender pay gap, according to a 2014 article by the New York Times.
Creating Real, Lasting Change
From my time spent as a CEO and founder, I’ve found that there are a few actionable choices companies can begin to make in order to create real, structural change and increase the number of women in executive positions without establishing a quota.
For starters, if there’s going to be real, lasting change in diversifying workplaces and offering better career opportunities for women, I believe it will have to come from a change of mindset. The type of mindset shift that’s needed is a willingness to pull back the curtain to reveal the unrealistic expectations often placed on working women; an acknowledgment that all gender identities are not starting from the same place of acceptance in our society; and that the overarching structures and systems of many businesses could exclude women and limit their ability to participate.
Companies should also focus on creating new opportunities that take into account the unique and sometimes impossible demands that are placed on women in our society. From my perspective, providing increased amounts of flexibility for all positions at your company could go a long way toward keeping women in their roles and the workforce as a whole, especially when it comes to balancing family life and taking parental leave.
Finally, companies can begin to adopt structures where hierarchy isn’t as important, employees are encouraged to be themselves at work, and the future growth of an organization follows a natural and fluid progression that isn’t as exclusionary as traditional workplace models.
Final Thoughts On Quotas
Thinking about quotas has also reminded me of recent trends that are shaping discourse on feminism. Quotas have been described as empowering for women in the workplace, and discussion of female empowerment can be found everywhere, ranging from marketing campaigns to government initiatives. While it’s important to have discussions surrounding how to better support women, I believe that, sometimes, society seems to put the responsibility solely on women themselves to do better, work and push harder, and elevate themselves.
It’s easy for a business to share its hiring quotas and mention buzzwords about how they support women in the workplace. But to me, the harder and more important task would be to actively ensure all women are paid a living wage, to make real structural changes for women to properly balance work and family obligations, and to give them tangible opportunities to lead better, more fulfilling lives.
I do consider myself a feminist, but I do not align with loosely defined female empowerment initiatives. Instead, I take what I’ve learned firsthand in being a female leader and share that experience with other women so they can chart their own paths in their lives and careers. I believe it’s time we work together to build a better future for ourselves and our colleagues.