Are Workplace Gender Quotas the Answer to Australia’s Equality Crisis?

Progress in the campaign to see women holding 30% of seats on ASX 200 boards by 2018 has stalled.

Released a fortnight ago, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) latest scorecard reveals that while significant improvement has been made to establish equality across Australian businesses, gender representation rates on the nation’s top boards remain stagnant, rising only .2% over the last year to 24.9%.

The findings have further inflamed a long-raging debate over whether it is time for the government to step in and legislate the change that companies are largely incapable or unwilling to make themselves in the quest for equality.

Chief amongst the legislation proposed is a gender quota, which would enforce the 30% representation rate on executive management teams, with the goal of attaining parity in the near future.

Opponents have raised concerns over how such laws would impede their ability to hire the right person for a particular role, and questioned whether the government should have the right to dictate corporate policy in such a heavy-handed fashion.

They’re obvious concerns, admit those in favour of political intervention, but they insist that if something is to be done to ensure women are provided with the same opportunities as their male counterparts, it must be done now.

Now or Never

Dr. Louise Metcalf is the Executive Director of futureproofology, a Senior Organisational Psychologist, and Director of the Australian Research Institute for Environment and Sustainability at Macquarie University. She says the WGEA’s findings prove the time for talk has long passed, and immediate action needs to be taken.

“We are changing, but the pace is glacial and even seems to have stopped in some of the highest levels of organisations. The interventions that people have been using to tackle this bias problem have been good, but far from great or fast enough.”

Bias, rather than ignorance or a lack of urgency, is primarily what Metcalf believes has put the 30% target in jeopardy. And it’s not only men who are guilty of harbouring it.

In a double-blind study performed in 2012, science faculty from research-intensive universities were asked to read a resume submitted for a prospective laboratory manager position, and determine whether the applicant should be hired based on key factors such as competency, and mentoring potential.

The resumes were identical, except for a single detail: half named the applicant as John, the other half, Jennifer.

Staff were randomly assigned the resume they would read, with half of each gender receiving Jennifer’s, and the other half John’s.

Five years later, the science community is still reeling from the shock of the results.

On each factor, John was ranked higher than Jennifer by a significant margin. And it was women, not men, that ranked Jennifer lowest.

“When people recruit for senior positions, regardless of whether the recruiter is male or female, they tend to prefer men for those roles,” Metcalf explains.

“There is an inherent bias within us that a man is more ‘leader-like’, so we make blanket assumptions about the capacity for leadership when we see either a female or a male name.”

It will come as a surprise to few that this bias is not always so subtle.

In 2016, the Australian Institute of Company Directors wrote to the chairs of ASX 200 boards with either one or less women, asking them to explain the disparity.

Responses included:

“Women aren’t reliable enough to be long-term board members.”

“Women talk too much and make the board meeting too long.”

“We don’t have to and we don’t want to appoint women to our boards.”

Such chauvinistic declarations have led Metcalf to insist that while there are some effective tools to diffuse this bias – she highlights Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test as an example – legislation is the only way to make the required difference in a reasonable time frame.

“I think we’d all want (an option) more positive than this, something which saw women welcomed into organisations and respected for their talents. It just depends on how long you are willing to wait. If you can wait until 2050, that’s fine, but if you want to see improvements earlier, we have no other choice, really.”

She compares the need for equality legislation to the introduction of laws requiring occupants of cars to wear a seatbelt in the early 1970s. Force a change, and you’ll see results.

Shift the Mind, Shift the Power

Founder and CEO of DifferenThinking, Dr. Zivit Inbar, has over 15 years of experience in leadership at board and executive levels. While she accepts that governments are sometimes required to nudge society in the direction of positive change, she warns that pushing quota-based legislation is only a cosmetic solution.

She recalls a breakfast in Washington DC at which she talked with NASA’s Equal Opportunity Employment Officer, Keri. L Eliason, about what impact gender quotas would have on the agency.

“NASA has a 3% turnover rate”, Eliason told Inbar, “and I can’t just ask when someone is going to retire. So how can I decide how to fill the quotas when I don’t even know who is staying and who is going?”

That’s just one of the many problems that arise when equality is quantified, says Inbar, and they only serve to further confuse the issue.

In her experience, equality means nothing if the focus is on balancing numbers. Equality only counts when it encourages diversity. And that is what she believes boards are lacking. Even those that currently have women on them.

“The aim is for 30% of positions on ASX 200 boards to be filled by women. This is wonderful, however, if the women that are selected to sit on the board share similar backgrounds as those of the male members that are on the board (experience, education, industry etc.) then diversity of thinking could still be limited. “

So what’s the solution?

“We have to empower the ecosystem for support”, Inbar explains.

While the most obvious way of doing so includes greater mentoring and networking opportunities for women already in the workforce, the real change, studies show, needs to happen in homes and classrooms to eradicate the bias before it has the chance to spread.

In research published earlier this year in Science, a group of 400 boys and girls between the ages of five and seven were told a story about a person who was “really, really smart”, then shown pictures of four adults – two men, and two women all styled in a professional fashion –  and asked to guess which one was the person in the story.

Five year-olds were most likely to choose someone of their own gender. Six and seven year-olds – that is, children of schooling age – were far less likely to believe the story was about a woman.

Further experiments went on to strongly suggest that, starting from the age of six, all children tended to accept the stereotype of brilliance as a male trait.

“Many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age. This stereotype begins to shape children’s interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate”, concluded the researchers.

However, brilliance wasn’t inherently associated with intelligence. One experiment asked the group to choose which of four children – two boys, two girls, presented in the same manor as the adults earlier – had the best grades. The older the subjects of both genders were, the higher the likelihood that they’d choose one of the girls due to another stereotype: that girls perform better at school.

This, Inbar believes, is why girls are more likely to follow curriculum to the letter rather than experimenting with ideas, and therefore why women are statistically likely to do the same when entering the workforce, as the mindset directs the majority away from more ‘brilliant’ career paths.

She points to the disparity in patent ownership rates in the USA, where women are listed as primary inventors on only 8% of those awarded, as a revealing indicator of the divide these beliefs are responsible for.

The Weight of Expectation

When such a warped portrayal of ability is presented at an early age, it takes courage, sacrifice, and support to overcome it.

Dr. Tien Huynh is a lecturer and leading international consultant in the fields of bioscience and food technology. She arrived in Australia as a refugee from the Vietnam War, and although her parents stressed the importance of education, the expectation was always upon her to settle down and start a family.

It wasn’t until she was named a 2017 Superstar of STEM that Huynh’s parents finally began to accept her decision to prioritise her career.

“When I won the award, Mum said ‘I’m so proud of you. It’s almost like you gave me a child’. I said ‘Mum, it’s even better than that!’.

Huynh says such expectations were never going to stop her from pursuing her passion, but she sees students and graduates alike succumbing frequently as they struggle to find a balance between their personal and professional aspirations.

She mentors them in an attempt to find the balance, but believes doing so will only go so far in solving the gender disparity in the sciences, especially in leadership roles.

“In my opinion, I don’t think the gender disproportions in STEM are due to gaps in skills. It is the opportunities that are not offered to (women) due to other priorities in life – children, family responsibilities, and sacrifices. These are sometimes the reasons we are overlooked as they may be seen as distraction from our career commitments.”

Huynh believes “realistic quotas, tangible targets, and accountability” can play a crucial part in neutralising this assumption, but for them to count, they need to be installed across entire industries.

“We want to aim for a balanced representation, but a target of 50% at executive levels is unrealistic considering male domination in some fields. For instance, if only 10% of engineering undergraduates are girls, we should be asking instead how we can achieve a 50% employment rate across the industry as a whole.”

The move towards 50% at executive levels could then be fostered within organisations through supportive strategies.

The Value of Diversity

When businesses choose to take this kind of initiative, the results have proved beneficial for all.

CareSuper is an industry superfund for professionals. It has 250,000 members, and $14 billion in funds under management.

The company’s come a long way under the leadership of Julie Lander, who was appointed CEO in 2002. Thanks in no small part to her background in HR, Lander’s presence has not just paid dividends for members, but also for employees.

Under her guidance, both the board and staff have achieved near gender parity. “That’s partly by design, but it’s always about getting the right person for the job”, Lander’s quick to clarify.

“I don’t like tokenism.”

Her goal, ultimately, is to foster a corporate culture driven by diversity in experience.

Up until last year, Lander’s executive management team included only one man. It was a skew she’d traditionally been comfortable with, though she knew bringing in new executives who could offer broader perspectives on initiatives and strategies would result in a more dynamic team.

Therefore, over a 12 month period, more men were introduced to the team to ensure different voices would be heard, allowing CareSuper to grow in ways that may not have been considered in the past.

Lander admits that it was difficult to divert from tradition, “but on occasion you do have to try harder”.

The shift in culture that’s resulted from this proactive focus on diversity has been palpable. Lander says the team is more communicative and driven than ever, and that it’s helped encourage a more open and personable work environment, where everyone understands their wealth of experience and skills are a vital element of CareSuper’s success story.

“When people understand and are committed to an organisation’s purpose, they tend to do a better job, and you get better business outcomes.”

Any business not nurturing the same culture, Lander warns, are only serving to hinder their own prosperity. Her point is echoed in the federal government’s recent inquiry into gender segregation, which found that equality across the entire workforce would result in a boost of $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025.

Are Quotas the Answer?

In the end, it is the culture of companies that needs to change to ensure women are given the opportunity and ability to make their mark on an executive level.

Can legislation, particularly quota-based legislation, promote that kind of change? Or would it only serve to further the belief that women are not capable of achieving or holding such positions based on their individual ability, a belief born from bias and social expectation?

In a recent poll by the Economic Society of Australia’s Monash Forum, 82.1% of respondents said they supported the idea that government intervention would be required to eradicate gender inequality.

Monash University Associate Professor Andreas Leibbrandt, who provided an overview of the poll, compared the findings to his own working paper, in which subjects were asked to state their support of gender quotas. 42% said they supported the notion. 39% opposed it.

Whatever comes, it’s undeniable that change needs to be made to ensure not just equality, but opportunity is in reach for all. For now, the impetus to create that change remains with businesses. If they don’t act quickly, however, it won’t be long before they hear the government knocking at the boardroom door.


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