Elect Women to Positions of Power, Get Positive Change

When quotas require that legislatures and businesses include more women, remarkable things can happen

by Amy Davidson • Senior Editor at the New Yorker
woman climbing snow covered mountain cartoon image
Photograph: Guy Billout

Duflo’s big question, though, was whether women leaders would have a lasting effect—whether the status quo would reappear once the spinning quota wheel had moved on to another village. So she and her colleagues went into villages and played each person a recording of a speech, sometimes given by a man, sometimes by a woman. The listeners then rated the speech. In villages that had never had a woman chief, the man was generally rated much higher—even though the wording was identical. In villages that had had the experience of a woman leader, that effect disappeared. And in the next election cycle, Duflo found that if a village had been governed by a woman once, it was more likely to elect a woman again, even without a quota. “Having a woman leader affected the view of women’s competency almost instantly,” Duflo says.

Elsewhere in the world, the results have also been striking. In 1994 some 800,000 people in Rwanda, the majority of them men, were killed in a genocidal war. By 1996, fully 70 percent of the country’s population was female, and women headed half the households. A new constitution in 2003 set aside 30 percent of the seats in parliament for women. Those would be filled on a separate ballot, in which women competed against women. As it turned out, women won several of the openly contested seats, too, bringing the total representation of women in parliament to 48 percent. In the next election, in 2008, that number rose to 56 percent—the highest in the recorded history of parliaments anywhere. If there is a lesson here, it may be that quotas can be regarded as a floor, not a ceiling. Women’s ambitions needn’t be limited to being handed a respectable share.

How Women Affect the Business World
Nine years ago, Norway’s legislature made an abrupt decision: The boards of publicly registered companies would henceforth be 40 percent female. At the time, the average was about 9 percent; the law gave businesses five years, until 2008, to make it happen. If they failed, the companies would incur sanctions and in some cases be legally required to dissolve. Some had to scramble at the last minute, and some went private—an option that allowed them to avoid the quota—but on the whole they made it. Beforehand, there had been dire warnings about the consequences of the law, says Alison Konrad, a professor at the University of Western Ontario. And some of the complaints were more than ugly: Anders Breivik, who in a bombing and shooting spree in 2011 killed 77 people, most of them kids at a summer camp in Norway, ranted about the board quota in his manifesto. But Breivik is on the extreme fringe. “Magically, all these companies survived, are doing fine and have stopped talking about it,” Konrad says.

Anne Kathrine Slungard was part of the first group of women to be brought into the boardroom after Norway passed the quota law, and today she serves on the boards of five firms, including Siemens, a global energy and technology company. Slungard had been mayor of Trondheim, the country’s third-largest city, so she already had a national profile. She says she never felt she had to struggle to be respected as a board member, though she jokes that “maybe I lacked the antennae.” She says, “I’ve heard other women say that they had to fight their way into the boardroom, and some did feel they were not trusted. But others were welcomed with open arms. The main difference, in my opinion, is between the different chairmen. If the chairmen were pro quota or if they were against the quota, that was a big difference when it came to how to welcome new board members.”

Slungard says she thinks other countries should institute corporate quotas, and she’s quick to point out she didn’t always feel that way. “I say that with a smile on my face because I’m a conservative politician and conservatives are not pro quotas,” she says. “This is one of the big issues in my political career in which I have changed my mind. Fifteen years ago, I was against any quota. But now I believe you have to do something powerful to make the evolution run a bit faster.”

First published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue

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