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

In fact, a slew of other countries have followed in Norway’s footsteps. Spain, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, Italy and Australia all have legislated boardroom quotas (none has yet reached its target date for compliance). The European Union as a whole is also considering a quota of 40 percent women in the boardroom, which would have to be ratified by its members. “I don’t like quotas, but I like what they do,” Viviane Reding, the EU’s senior justice official, told the New York Times, nicely summing up many people’s attitudes.

Because in specific ways, quotas work: Once there are women on a company’s board, the number of women holding other top executive positions increases. A growing body of research in the United States also indicates that having women board members correlates with better returns on the bottom line. (In Norway, results have been mixed.) When Catalyst looked at Fortune 500 companies, those with the most women in leadership positions outperformed those with the fewest by 26 percent. “The business case is so clear and compelling,” says Deborah Gillis, senior vice president of global operations at Catalyst. “Organizations should want to take action. The question isn’t why more women should be on boards but why not?”

Quotas in the U.S.
While this country rarely has quotas, it does have “goals”: programs that encourage diversity, as measured by specific numeric signposts. For example, the federal government has a goal, mandated by Congress, of awarding 5 percent of federal contracts to small businesses owned by women. But even with that goal, the percentage of contracts awarded has been 3.98. There is no guarantee that women will get the designated contracts; they’ll just have a first chance to compete for them. “This is a tool, not a quota,” says Michele Chang, deputy chief of staff at the Small Business Administration.

The U.S. does have a shining example of a quota-like goal that proved truly transformative: Title IX. Passed by Congress in 1972, it in part requires educational institutions receiving federal funds to create equal opportunities for both genders in education, including in school-sponsored sports. The number of female student athletes has since quintupled, along with the attendant benefits of health, teamwork and—not least—scholarships. If everyone agrees a goal is a good idea and it is well implemented, a goal can work.

But goals in this country were once used to keep people out—and today they are tangled up in the controversial issue of affirmative action, a catchall term for any intervention that attempts to address imbalances. Debates over affirmative action—which of course affects race as well as gender—have frequently ended up in court. Summarized very roughly, the Supreme Court ruled that strict quotas aren’t OK but goals are, and so is an effort to meet a goal—which may end up giving a certain candidate an edge. But this may change, and soon: The Supreme Court heard a case in October 2012 brought by a Caucasian student named Abigail Fisher, who didn’t get into the University of Texas in 2008. The decision will be handed down after this issue of More has gone to press, but given the conservative majority on the court, there is a chance that the justices will end affirmative action as we know it.

Which is not to say we can’t still benefit from other countries’ experiences. Around the world, quotas force corporations and political parties to take a hard look at women and figure out who are the most talented. When the powers that be are required to seek women, they have discovered—sometimes to their surprise—that they can find them. Those who don’t like quotas need to address the question of how we can match quotas’ accomplishments without writing them into law. Because when we do find a way to get women into power, we may learn for ourselves what is possibly the most hopeful lesson from the world’s great quota experiment: the speed at which attitudes and assumptions—as well as outcomes—can change.

Next: Women: The Big Winners of the 2012 Election

First published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue

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