By Linda McGregor, founder, All About Eve

Last Friday’s Status Quota debate, presented by Legends and Leaders, closed with me, a female whose business is about challenging female stereotypes and enabling gender diversity.

Now, I have a confession. I came into this debate pro-merit. I decided, however, to force myself to go team quotas to review the facts, to better educate myself, rather than just having an opinion. And I switched camps and now truly believe that quotas are a necessary evil to force change.

So what’s the convincing argument? Well the audience heard my team members, Thinkerbell founder Adam Ferrier, and Common Ventures co-founder Jane Burhop, talk about the facts of quotas, from credible sources such as the Harvard Business Review, PWC and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Adam opened with the point that we need quotas to rectify the system because it doesn’t work. Then we can use them to get to a merit based system, because we are not there yet.

Building on our argument, Jane referenced some publicly listed information, such as:

  • The proportion of female CEOs has remained at 5% for the last five years
  • The proportion of female CFOs has decreased from 8% to 6%
  • Greater diversity is proven to improve financial performance, leverage talent, reflect the marketplace, build reputation and increase innovation and group performance.

She argued that tabling and targets are not pushing change and improvement. Good intentions are not enough and are potentially fueling negative bias towards the issue, because the reporting of it is time consuming and intentions alone are not yielding results.

It’s all in the approach. It’s how you wield the sword that matters, not the sword itself.

Studies show using, or threatening to use, quotas force good changes:

  • A more thorough approach to HR and recruitment, for example, greater rigour when it comes to role descriptions and selection criteria
  • Removal of unconscious bias by demanding conscious thought about what’s needed, not who
  • Less use of closed networking circles to hire “mates” rather than the best
  • Empowerment of those aiming to change or  “rock the boat”

Finally, the facts smash an oft-quoted thought – that quota-appointed females are less capable and less qualified. Worse than trophy wives, they’re trophy directors. What a myth! The facts show this is rarely the case and one person who would know is AFL board member, Sam Mostyn, who recently announced she was proud to be a quota-appointment recipient – promptly inspiring others to put their hands up too.

So what’s the current reality? Well, I think we’re all pro-merit in principle and in ideology – but on its own, it simply doesn’t deliver. Quoting Sam Mostyn from last month: “Hoping and wishing and praying for the promotion of women, in the natural course, has been shown not to work in Australia … there’s a point at which targets and quotas have their place.”

The stats show painfully poor results – in ASX 200 companies only 5%, 10% and 6% of CEO’s, COO’s and CFO’s respectively are women and those percentages are static or declining, proving we are wishing and praying with merit alone. As our opposing team demonstrated, merit is a principle that people love but can’t seem to find a way to turn into action.

Why should quotas worry anyone, unless they’re not committed to seeing and implementing the rise of merit, whether it’s female or male.

A “means to an end” is our take on quotas, targets, call them what you will. it is an approach that can be tailored to the problem but with measurable goals. Again, if you’re weakening back to merit, don’t forget those ASX 200 companies above – 99% have gender diversity policies, yet aren’t delivering the results. Merit is a lovely thing to believe in, but not a game changer without the will of quotas.

I’ll close by saying I think we’re all fed up of these debates because they centre on far too much talk and far too little action. We keep doing the same thing but hoping for different results.

Quotas force action and the facts show they do – so surely it’s the way to go.