Leaders today experience a disconnect between classic leadership skills and the speed and pace of a volatile, connected world. What does it mean to be authentic today? To be as close as you can be to who you really are, while at the same time delivering what followers need in a global, networked world? My intent is to provoke debate on this critical topic.

Quotas for Women in Leadership

This has to be one of the hottest and most controversial current topics around, so I stick my neck out with some trepidation.  Why?  Because I hope to set a debate going in which we are all focused on moving beyond the status quo, where, despite some fantastic role models like Ginni Rometty, Angela Merkel, Sheryl Sandberg and Indra Nooyi, the statistics tell us that we are stuck.   There is some good news.  Bloomberg reports that legal directives in the EU have increased female representation on corporate boards to 17.8 percent in 2013 from 11.9 percent in 2010, while in the U.S., the pace at which women were added to Fortune 500 boards is still at 2 percent, although having slowed from 5 percent annual growth since 2005.  In 2003, Norway became the first country to legislate gender balance on corporate boards and reached the 40 percent threshold in 2007.  On the bad news side, in the absence of legal or activist pressure, the makeup of boards has hardly changed and almost half of Silicon Valley companies have no female directors.  And at lower levels in organizations neither the gender balance nor equal pay are advancing much.

I want to make the case for quotas for women in senior leadership positions.   

There are generally three main arguments against quotas.  People claim we shouldn’t have quotas because: firstly, as a woman, I want to make it in my own right, not be seen as a woman in a titular role; secondly, if we fill quotas with inadequately qualified women, we will set our own cause back; thirdly, the cost burden of equal representation or equal pay would be too high for business to bear.  It seems to me that the first two arguments are inextricably bound up either with our own female lack of confidence, or with our perfectionism, often evidenced in acts such as not going for a job unless we meet the criteria exactly.  (I nearly missed my job as a professor at London business school, despite a personal invitation repeated three times from the head of department, because the gap between the advertised job requirements and how I saw myself seemed cavernous to me.  Not so, as it turned out, and I spent a happy 11 years there).  I don’t think that many men worry about getting a job because they have some kind of inside track, whether it’s because of who they know or how they got onto the list, so why do we worry so much?  More importantly, there are loads of qualified women available, some of whom may under-estimate their capabilities, but who are nonetheless fabulous.  The idea of us running out of well qualified women at any level is impossible.  And if you do get there because of a quota system, just do the splendid job you know you can and anyone complaining will soon stop.  The argument about the cost burden on business also bemuses me.  Have you seen the Catalyst research on the superior returns achieved by companies with more women at the top?  Business can’t afford NOT to appoint more women at the top if they want to outperform in the long term, whatever the short term cost.

I have always berated myself that I and my Baby Boomer generation didn’t do enough to fight for equality.  Lately I have drawn a different conclusion. Imagine the world of employment back in the 1970s.  I was turned down for a second interview in Marketing because ‘women don’t work in Marketing’.  Sexual overtures at work, from a slap on the bottom to an outright proposal of advancement in return for sex, were commonplace (even where I worked, in the civil service).  And so we took it head on.  I headed for the bar so that I could network with the men and took a cigar when the box came round and wore a suit and a tie (lemon yellow leather, I wish I’d kept it).  I laughed off offers of sex and tried to work and play harder than the men.  Our more sophisticated research today tells us that trying to outman the men doesn’t work.  But in those days, taking all the overt prejudice head-on seemed to be the only way forward, if not out or up.

So why am I convinced that quotas are the right answer today?    Because we are still relying on the same approach as the 1970s, when we now know that it doesn’t work.  One definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different outcomes.  We are still expecting women to stand up for themselves and are running programs to develop women ‘to have confidence and step forward and ask’ and it’s not moving the needle.  Unlike the 1970s, in developed countries today it is rarer to hear of overt discrimination being practised, because in many countries we have legislated against it.  Also, a lot more middle aged and older men today have daughters in the workplace and are thus newly converted to the cause of equality.  The challenge today is much more subtle.  We now know that what we are fighting is often unconscious bias.  Women do have confidence and do ask, but we still don’t get – because a man asking is seen as assertive (positive) and a woman asking is seen as pushy (negative).  Like it or not, we all, men and women, have unconscious and gendered bias about acceptable ranges of behaviour in men and women.  So men happily take on jobs that are too big for them because they believe that they are better than they are – and their bosses let them.  Women often under-estimate their ability to take on a bigger job – and bosses let them.  We are all, men and women together, unconsciously, unknowingly and unhappily conspiring to keep things exactly where they are.  And it’s working.  Because, as I already said, we are stuck.

How to get unstuck?  Take unconscious bias straight on and don’t let it win.  Set quotas, fill senior jobs with women and they will pull more women through, even if only because they act as role models.  The men, who are currently in charge in our workplaces, like and understand targets and will want to meet them.  And we will all very quickly become used to a workplace where equality is the norm and our work, and working relationships, will be improved because of this.