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

What if there were a blunt but effective way to fix America’s glass ceiling problem? Because despite the high profiles of such women as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we do have one: Only 3.8 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women. If you look at the boards of those same companies, the number of women improves, though not by much. In 2011 they occupied 16.1 percent of board seats, according to a study by Catalyst. In politics the picture is equally disturbing. At the national level, only 17 percent of legislators are women; at the state level, the figure is 24 percent—and that percentage has flatlined. America ranks 80th in the world in terms of the percentage of women in our national legislature, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Compare that with Vietnam (48th), Belarus (39th), Argentina (18th), Cuba (third) and Rwanda (first). The U.S. is tied with Morocco and Venezuela.“It’s an embarrassment,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “We’re the country that’s the model of democracy in the world.”

Women are underrepresented around the globe. But a large number of other countries have begun to attack the disparity head on. The hammer they are using is quotas, and the results have been rapid and recognized. Quotas have become so common outside the U.S. that they now amount to no less than a giant, provocative worldwide experiment. And as the data from that experiment trickle in, there is a valuable lesson for us: Push legislatures and companies to put women in top positions, and remarkable things can happen.

When Women Get Elected
More than 100 countries—or more than half the world’s nations—now have some kind of quota designed to increase the number of women legislators. This has led to a dramatic boost in the number of women leaders around the world, and the ripple effects are clear: Political quotas result in substantively different policies; they create positive female role models, changing attitudes toward women; and they bring more women into politics.

Judith Schwentner was elected to the Austrian parliament in 2008, when she was 40. Austrian political parties have voluntarily adopted quotas—Schwentner’s party, the Greens, aims to choose women as 50 percent of its candidates—and as a result the proportion of women legislators is 27 percent. “There is always the cliché that women who have been given a job to fulfill a quota are less qualified,” Schwentner says. “But this is nonsense.” She sees women working just as effectively as men to pass laws—and quickly gaining experience.

When Esther Duflo, a professor of economics at MIT, began studying political quotas, she was not convinced that they were a good idea—or even that they mattered. Does having a woman in office make a difference? Do women govern differently than men? She found a way to explore that question in India, where quotas require that a third of the elected village chiefs be female. Before each election, “they count one, two, three, one, two, three,” as she puts it, and in every third village only women candidates can run. The data she gathered—the record of what the women did once elected—showed that villages with women chiefs made distinctive investment choices: “pro-woman, pro the weaker segment of society,” says Duflo. For instance, women, whose tasks traditionally include getting water, were much more likely than men to put money into wells. In contrast, “in Rajasthan,” says Duflo, “male elected officials put money into roads.”

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.”

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

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First Published Wed, 2012-10-24 09:16

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