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Gender quotas: 'Special treatment' or progressive push?

Whilst quotas and other efforts towards parity might lead to tokenism, the flipside is...
Gender quotas: 'Special treatment' or progressive push?

The mean percentage of women on Boards at FTSE 250 firms stands at just 23.7%.

In the aftermath of gender pay gap reporting, several firms have turned their focus toward improving representation of women. In particular, getting women into senior roles in their organisations.

With the data finding that the average median pay gap stands at 9.7%, many firms found one reason for the disparity was the imbalance between men and women in senior roles. Men were far more likely to have higher paid roles, with on average, companies’ highest paid quartile being 63% male. Representation in Britain’s biggest businesses compounds this. The mean percentage of women on Boards at FTSE 250 firms stands at just 23.7%, whilst the number of women in Executive Directorships has dropped from 38 to 30.

The mean percentage of women on Boards at FTSE 250 firms stands at just 23.7%.

But what’s preventing women from reaching the upper echelons? A number of factors, apparently. Everything from the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon, to parenthood penalties, subconscious biases, to poor pipelines and recruitment of women are cited as curtailing women's progression -  with the latter an easy starting point for change. Recently, financial services firm PwC decided to ban all-male shortlists for jobs based in the UK in an attempt to secure more top positions for women. Other global firms including Goldman Sachs and Accenture are also pledging to have a 50/50 gender split in their workforces.

However, quotas such as this have been met with contention. In a thinkpiece for The Times, Clare Foges, Author and former Downing Street speechwriter, criticised these targets, saying they do a disservice to the reputation of women in work. “Decades of women’s lib has been spent dispelling the idea that we are weak little flowers who can’t get on without special treatment, and these targets resurrect it,” she writes. “50% ambitions are not only patronising but often extremely difficult to achieve.” Her fear is that, once a gender split has been established, “an inevitable suspicion will hang over female TV experts, newscasters, MPs, board members or music acts: are they there just to make up the numbers, to tick the equality box?” she writes.

Whilst the arguments that efforts towards parity will lead to tokenism are still going strong, recruiters disagree. “There will be those who suggest that there is a danger that this type of intervention could lead to tokenism, but that makes the assumption that there are not enough quality female candidates for roles in the market. We find the reality is that’s not the case,” Steve Thompson, Managing Director of Forward Role Recruitment says. He adds that it's great that companies like PwC have taken such a positive action. “The decision suggests that they accept there could currently be an element of sub-conscious bias in the firm’s recruitment decision making processes and putting this issue on their agenda so publicly is the first step to tackling the issue," he explains.

“Anything that supports equality in the workplace can only be a good thing – both for women and business itself,” Kathryn Riley, Founder and Managing Director of legal recruitment experts, Douglas Scott, adds. “Women and men are equally talented, but if females aren’t supported in reaching and realising their full capabilities, businesses could risk losing untapped potential from right under their noses.” She’s hopeful that such hiring drives will further progress towards empowering women who perhaps have the skillset but lack the confidence.

Others within the executive search space, however, whilst not against diversity targets, believe companies can’t ignore the cultural setbacks that leave women out of the top tiers. Suki Sandhu, Founder & CEO, Audeliss & Involve – an executive search firm that specialises in diversity – believes that inclusion needs to be built into a firms’ culture to truly succeed. “On top of recruiting from a diverse pool they [employers] need to be reviewing diversity at every level of the business and tracking staff retention, taking active steps to address any shortcomings,” he says.

Whilst quotas aren’t ideal, with the danger being firms could lose sight of what skills are needed to support the business, at least it’s a remedy of sorts. It forces those in executive search to be more conscious of where they fish for female talent. Kathleen Saxton, Founder of Executive Search firm, The Lighthouse Company told Digiday that she enjoys when her clients give her shortlists to meet criteria, because they “make us look harder and be more conscious of the differentiation on those shortlists.”

Hopefully, through this push, the top of British businesses will no longer be a men-only members club. And if you’re still disillusioned by quotas, think of the flipside: if there’s no effort to bring women into the workplace - armed with the potential gusto to re-design organisational culture for the better – we’ll be seeing dismal numbers of female leaders in years to come. And do we really need to be having this conversation in ten years’ time?