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Boardroom Betties

February 10, 2010

© Kelly Young /

Just after research was released on the increase among U.S. women’s education and earning levels, the New York Times published an interesting article on women in the boardroom.

In 2002, Norway became the first country in the world to introduce a quota for females on company boards: 40% or bust.

Feminists, misogynists, and everyone in between have waited with bated breath, and seven years later some preliminary results are in.  They are decidedly mixed.

Dissenters of affirmative action-type policies will make the point that when you go out of your way to include people who haven’t been included before, you’ll get a smaller pool of highly qualified people to pick from.

I do think there’s some truth to that, but it makes sense.  Given that women by and large haven’t have had as many opportunities to rise to the executive level, there are fewer qualified women waiting in the wings.  The idea is to change that.  In this case it’s putting the cart before the horse to remind her that she’s strong, capable, and has a job to do.  Giddyap!

There was a lot riding on this policy.  A main hope was that seeing more women in board positions would lure more female executives out of the woodwork.  But nearly a decade after the quota was enacted, that still hasn’t happened.

Then of course there’s the age-old pickle of how to be a mother and an aggressive career woman in a cutthroat world, a mess even MacGyver would be hard-pressed to wiggle out of.  It’s extremely difficult for women to compete non-stop in a career when they have children.  Progressive maternity leave policies in Europe in a way have hindered women further by providing ample time off which translates into setbacks, while draconian maternity leave policies in the US have also hurt women because they are often forced to choose between family or success.  I have seen this first-hand and dread the day when the conundrum becomes personal.

There were big designs, hopes and dreams that increasing the number of women on corporate boards would be the silver bullet, boosting company performance inside and out.  There are instances where that has happened, and instances where it hasn’t.  To that, I say, are we expecting too much of women?

Or rather, are we projecting generalizations about women onto women in the boardroom, expecting them to be highly functioning, successful, and…magic? (And cook a pot roast during the lunch hour?)

Besides, 40% is still a minority. Let’s push the quota to 70% and see what happens.  Let’s also give the policy another decade before we judge its success.  Old habits die a very slow, long death.

I think the deeper is question is which is worth more: the improved economic outcome of a company due to increased females/increased diversity (meaning, was this the original goal), OR the sheer importance, in and of itself, of cracking open an institution of prejudice?  (Was this the goal?) I mean, both would be great, but if I have to choose, the former is good but the latter is great.  Its ripples are wide.

Despite slow uptake in female executives – a complicated, multi-pronged problem for sure – there are large positive implications of this policy.  One is the greater social change it’s effecting, as other countries like France and Netherlands are following suit.  Two is starting the conversation about gender inequality as a persistent problem in the 21st century.  That’s evolution, my friends.

While more studies are needed to discern just how the new quota has affected the corporate, feminist, and social justice worlds, such aggressive policies are needed to cajole greater equality among the sexes.

The process of enacting these policies, irrespective of their successes or wobbles, is magnanimous and justified in itself.  As the lady boss of all lady bosses, Gloria Steinem, said,

“power can be taken but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment itself.”

  1. mouse permalink
    February 10, 2010 3:38 pm

    I’m interested in the issues this raises, but I’m getting mixed messages. You admit that there are inherent problems with these sorts of quotas, but then suggest upping the quota to 70%.
    Is it really “evolution” if the results are “decidedly mixed”? And does cracking open institutional barriers matter if women aren’t then filling those cracks?

    • Jessica Mack permalink*
      February 10, 2010 7:00 pm

      What I’m saying is that the jury is still out in terms of the data — about whether having more women on the board will have a decidedly positive impact on a company’s performance — and my own personal jury is also still out. So, yes, some mixed messages. I’m suggesting 70% just as a hypothetical. The most annoying thing about this policy and this article is that it calls for just 40% of women on a board — still a minority — then expects the world to change. It IS evolution that a policy like this even exists, and that changes are being forced at the corporate level. It’s not revolution, since much has not changed. I was thinking change a la Canadian history, not a la US history. Now, what the actual outcomes of the policy are/will be…I think we need to wait longer to say what’s what. And women are filling in the cracks — and making those cracks, in fact. Which I’m suggesting has a strong value in and of itself, from a social justice perspective, irrespective of what the policy outcomes may eventually be. Now, if it turns out to be the crappiest policy ever, and adding more women onto corporate boards is driving a new global economic crisis, well then it doesn’t make sense. But I’m talking proximate, versus ultimate, value. Thanks mouse!

  2. Julie Bartkiewicz permalink
    February 10, 2010 3:58 pm

    Im a bit disturbed by some of this article. First off I am a strong opposer of affirmative action it does not create equality or equal opportunity. If the women are not being hired because of their skills or willingness to do the job to the same standard as men then they don’t deserve the job.

    Also women do have the choice of having a career or family. No one is forcing either on them, if a job calls for a certain amount of time that the woman can not commit to then the job should go to someone who has prepared for that life style. This doesn’t solely go for women either plenty of men need to prioritize.

    • Jessica Mack permalink*
      February 10, 2010 6:55 pm

      Julie, I agree and this article doesn’t sit very well with me either. As for the motherhood/career choice, the article suggests a possible reason for lack of “ready” executives or board member women being that Norway has such progressive family leave policies that women are able to keep their jobs while being away with their babies for long periods of time. While this is great because women shouldn’t be penalized for having children, it also inevitably sets them back.

      Meanwhile, I don’t agree that affirmative action doesn’t EVER create equal opportunity, though there are inherent problems with the policy. I also certainly agree that the best candidate should get a job. BUT, affirmative action is predicated on the idea that the “diverse” candidate should be just as qualified as a “non-diverse” candidate, not less qualified but more diverse.

      The case of this quota, though, is not exactly that. A remedy to having a proliferation of inexperienced women on boards in Norway has been the genesis of an “old girls club,” as the article states: that is, only a small number of female executives — presumably the highest qualified and equally qualified to men — occupy seats on numerous boards. This presents a different problem, or rather maybe even the same problem as before…

  3. Don permalink
    February 12, 2010 6:24 pm

    I think that countries like Norway and France are doing what is necessary to improve their companies and countries. Yes, the quotas will hurt men in the sense that men will lose alot of power. But in my opinion women will only make the companies stronger. I think that men should not only support the quotas but should also support the women who move into those powerful positions. It only makes sense. There are obviously reasons why countries are moving forward and greatly increasing the percentage of women in top level positions.

    “There’s a sound business reason why Norway now mandates that corporate boards be 40 percent female. Why Iceland, after its embarrassing financial mess, put major banks and its government in female hands. And why Hermes, the only French company to outperform expectations during the recession, also has, you guessed it, a management structure dominated by women.” By Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, Washington Post article (above)

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