Once again, we are treated to the oft-repeated views of Australia’s captains of industry that we don’t need quotas to lift the number of women in senior roles in Australia.

“Optional targets”, “encouragement”, “strong support” will achieve the same result. (Chanticleer CEO survey, AFR, January 6).

It’s puzzling that our business leaders are still so hesitant about following the vast array of evidence which points to the higher performance ratings and positive business outcomes of diversity.

“We see workforce diversity as essential to sustaining Optus’ competitive advantage,” CEO Allen Lew says.

So why the ambivalence? It’s not like our captains of industry don’t recognise there’s a problem. In fact, a number of those interviewed are members of Liz Broderick’s Male Champions of Change, a group absolutely convinced of the business imperative to include more women in senior roles and who ask themselves, “50/50, if not, why not?”

“We need to start treating this like any other business critical issue where you would develop a strategy to fix the problem,” says Mike Smith, CEO of ANZ.

Well, here’s a strategy that’s proven to work – quotas. In fact, it can be argued that they are the single strategy that does work in creating the desperately needed paradigm shift to increase diversity.

They worked in Norway, where quotas lifted the number of women on company boards from 7 per cent in 2003 to 40.5 per cent today.

They worked in the Australian Labor Party, where adoption of an affirmative action quota saw the numbers of women soar from 14.5 per cent in 1994 to 35.6 per cent 17 years later. This enabled Julia Gillard as prime minister to choose her record eight women ministers (five in Cabinet) from a pool of well-experienced women. Under Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party – no quotas – we are expected to celebrate the doubling of the number of women in Cabinet from one to two.

So why is there this vehement opposition to quotas when they so obviously work?

Perhaps the word “quota” has various connotations of unqualified minority groups being thrust undeservedly into positions of power? Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Women are not a minority in our modern Western societies. We are equal partners and contributors within our communities. Nor are we a minority when it comes to academic qualification, with women now outnumbering men “from bachelor degrees to the top doctoral peaks” (Geoff Maslen, SMH, Nov 25, 2013).

If it is the terminology, then let’s be creative about finding alternatives.

Of course, beyond just words, we also have to deal with the pervasive assumption that quotas are inherently “anti-merit”.

“We strongly support merit-based promotion”, says David Thodey, CEO of Telstra.

Who doesn’t?

The issue of male dominance in senior roles, be it in business or politics, is not one of lack of talent or merit on the part of women. This was the very clear experience of Martin Parkinson, past head of Treasury, when he introduced his “Progressing Women Initiative” to ensure equality of opportunity for leadership roles in Treasury. A firm target of 35 per cent women in leadership was set. Parkinson knew that it was most certainly no lack of ability or merit that was holding women back. It was the systemic influences within the department that needed radical change. His program has been an undeniable success.

Many of those interviewed by The Australian Financial Review also pointed to societal issues, particularly family and caring responsibilities, as playing a big part in creating the gender gap problem. But what better way to confront a problem and force a solution than to mandate change?

So yes, let’s do all the other things – let’s look at childcare and caring responsibilities, the pipeline, the mentoring, the unconscious bias, our employment practices. Let’s report on how we’re all doing.

But, fundamentally, we must all come to terms with the fact that quotas and merit are not mutually exclusive concepts. Which CEO is going to appoint an inappropriate or unqualified applicant to a role? As business leaders, we all want to bask in the success of the people we work with – they make us look good.

All the research over the past two decades tells us that diverse teams produce the best outcomes for business.

So let’s change the language. Let’s deal with the structures. But let’s hold ourselves to account – let’s give quotas a go.

Carol Schwartz is a director on the boards of Stockland and the Bank of Melbourne.

This article was originally published at the AFR: http://t.co/9lgkiKB4By


Sectors: Business