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Quotas could build critical mass (2010)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination


The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.

Quotas could build critical mass

Author: By Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

Published in The Australian Financial Review, Thursday, 18 November 2010 page 67

When it comes to the problem of women’s under-representation in boardrooms and at senior executive levels, Norway is famous for having introduced quotas and is ordinarily held up as a benchmark.

However, without quotas, Australia has managed significant progress. In fact, the last seven months saw a 400% increase in the number of women appointed to ASX 200 boards. We have achieved this through strong advocacy, education and engagement of the business community.

But is the reality that legislated quotas are unavoidable?

There are two main arguments in the ‘against quotas’ camp.

The first goes like this. Quotas are undemocratic. They interfere with efficient working of the labour market. They undermine the principle of merit by either promoting women who are not up to the job or by under-cutting women by creating the impression that they are not there on the basis of merit. Further, they cut across shareholder ability to decide who represents them on the Board.

It plays to the notion that there is a lack of appropriately skilled and talented women, so legislated quotas will result in less competent boards and senior management.

Yet our problem is not supply of appropriately qualified women, but lack of demand for their services.

And even with a quota in place, shareholders will still determine the Board’s composition. If shareholders find a female candidate, put forward by the Board, to be unacceptable, an alternative female candidate can be nominated.

The second argument is that quotas are discriminatory.

Under both federal and international law, quotas are permissible. Referred to as “temporary special measures”, they are just that - temporary. They are put in place for the achievement of a legitimate aim – in this case, gender equality. Any such measures are aimed to deliver a jolt to a misaligned system, and are in place only until the level of equity is reached.

These two arguments are not supported by evidence.

It is time we started talking openly about the meaning of ‘merit’. Merit aims to ensure leadership selection processes are fair and transparent. It should prevent the outcome being based on which university you went to, who you know or what your parents do. The merit principle is intended to eliminate favouritism, nepotism and bias – and yes, sexism.

It is time we applied the merit principle to women. The structural inequalities that exist mean that women with merit are currently not being considered for decision-making positions. Quotas are one way of bringing women’s merit out into the open.

When former Commonwealth Attorney General, Michael Lavarch, amended the Sex Discrimination Act in 1995, he anticipated the need for temporary special measures - including quotas. He was clear that these measures should be presented and understood as an expression of, rather than an exception to, equality. He meant that there is a difference between formal equality and substantive equality - are we interested only in equal chances or also, equal outcomes? Sometimes we have to treat people differently to overcome structural discrimination and achieve true equality.

Quotas provide one approach for reaching critical mass quickly and changing the culture in workplaces. It is critical mass that will create cultural change, not the other way around. Quotas don’t replace the need for other strategies, like monitoring, mentoring and training initiatives - these are essential to ensure there is a strong pool of women in line management positions, an important feeder group for higher level decision-making roles.

European Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, said recently, "I have not been an advocate of quotas for women in senior business posts in the past, but given the lack of progress in this area, we might in the future have to consider taking initiatives at the European level."

I agree with her.

Australia is making progress without quotas, but if we don’t continue apace, quotas may turn out to be the only real solution.

Elizabeth Broderick is Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.


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