Gender quotas in business: brilliant or bonkers?

“Absolutely not!” says Carol Friend, managing director, PIELLE Consulting Group. “It is an insult to women of merit who achieve board-level achievement. Quotas and restrictive short-lists mean that the candidates who win do so without open competition. What we need to do is encourage and empower women – and any other ‘under-represented’ group – to have the confidence to compete on the same basis as everyone else.  “Of course a suitably mixed board, House of Commons or any other group is a good thing so that the full range of perspectives are brought to decision making and creative entrepreneurship. But that should be achieved through merit, not restrictive practices.”

Hugh Cox, founder of technology firm Rosslyn Analytics, says he only ever hires the best person for the role: “To hire from any other perspective is a complete dereliction of duty and I have no doubt that those companies embracing such ‘fashionable’ ideas will lose business to their more focused competitors. Governments and public bodies generally can afford to play these games. In the real world, these distractions generate a quantifiable negative impact on the bottom line."

Gayna Hart, founder and MD of software firm Quicksilva, believes single-sex shortlists, as with single sex boards, can be "dangerously manipulative". "A healthy mix is always the best approach, in combination with an understanding of the way an individual’s skills can assist in the overall business performance,” she says.

Andy Pearce, CEO of Powwownow, has always actively recruited women to senior roles within his businesses. “While I wouldn’t say that I promote positive discrimination, I always believed women have a great deal to offer at board level," he explains.

He reckons all-male boards can sometimes be threatened by women coming into their organisation. “A few years ago I found myself in a very difficult situation: My company was bought by another company where the group board and all their subsidiary boards were exclusively men. I joined complete with two female board members and, over the next 12 months, I saw these two talented, successful women ignored, sidelined and ultimately forced out. It was ludicrous. When they bought the business, they bought the combined talents of the board and yet they then destroyed it.”

Joe Sluys, managing director of IT firm Sentronex, says that while the government might impose women-only shortlists for “public image reasons”, to apply this to business as a whole would be “fool hardy”: “Seats on boards should be decided on one thing alone – merit,” he says. “If a woman is the best person for the job, she should get the job."

All-male boards are dangerous, according to Judith Germain, MD of Dynamic Transitions. “They can suffer from insular thinking and can become too ego-driven. But the danger of imposing women-only shortlists is the possibility that ‘any’ woman will do rather than focusing on the best talent for the role. This is bad for business and can make the conditions that women work in harder and more hostile, as the men in the company believe that the women are only employed due to their gender and not their ability.” Helen Reynolds, founder of The Recruitment Industry Development Agency, agrees: “While there is no doubt that we need more women at the top, women-only shortlists would be a mistake as it would just add fuel to the fire of cries of positive discrimination from suitable and well-qualified male applicants. At the end of the day, the best person for the job should be the one who is appointed.”

Hear hear, says Real Business (and that’s coming from an all-female editorial team and organisers of the First Women Awards, Asian Women of Achievement Awards and the Women of the Future Awards). Hire based on brains, not boobs.What do you think? Post a comment below.

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