Quotas can put a crack in the glass ceiling, but they don’t smash it for good

Many would argue that 2018 was a pivotal year for gender equality.

The President’s Club scandal, the publishing of UK gender pay gap data, and the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements all contributed to a wave of momentum that pushed the conversation forward on an unprecedented scale.

It felt like the campaign for gender equality advanced in 2018. But come January 2019, and it appears that perhaps there had not been as much progress as we had hoped.

Research by index provider MCSI shows that global progress in increasing female representation at board level has in fact been slower than expected.

We now cannot expect women to occupy 30 percent of board seats until 2029 – two years later than first predicted.

The reason, MCSI explains, is that there are “lingering attitudes” – either conscious or unconscious – that are hindering women’s progression to the highest ranks.

Headlines like these are disappointing, but we must not be discouraged. This is not an irreversible state of affairs.

Businesses, particularly in financial services, like having numbers and targets to work towards – and when it comes to gender equality, having a goal in mind is a good thing.

It is how you get to that goal which is the challenging part – and as a result there has been much debate about enforcing quotas of female representation on boards.

Of course, there are success stories from the implementation of female board representation quotas. Former Lloyd’s CEO Inga Beale has previously gone on the record to say she benefited from such a metric during her time at General Electric’s insurance arm.

But even Beale herself said she was not convinced of these quotas, and during her time at Lloyd’s she chose to back initiatives that encouraged inclusivity in the workplace.

I for one am also uncertain whether quotas work as intended.

Yes, they help to directly challenge gender bias, but in the meantime you can also discriminate against other worthy candidates.

Even if you do agree with quotas and you put them in place, it can breed resentment even when the right candidate for the job is chosen.

Ultimately, quotas can undermine the ultimate goal, which is hiring and promoting on a purely meritocratic basis. Personally, if I were promoted to a new position I would want to be assured it was down to my strengths, not my gender.

I have no straightforward answer to increasing female representation at the highest level, and I am not sure there is one.

But if we want to put a tangible edge on it, ensuring gender-balanced shortlists would be a good start. In fact, while we’re at it, why not make them as diverse as possible?

Thirty percent of female board representation is said to be the “tipping point” beyond which tokenism ceases to be an issue and meritocracy prevails.

But let’s get to that 30 percent by challenging ingrained attitudes and looking at the issue in a more holistic fashion.

Quotas can put a crack in the glass ceiling, but they don’t smash it for good.