To Quota or Not to Quota – Is that the question?

Last year, right around this time, newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a gender-equal Cabinet.  When asked at a press conference why this was important, Trudeau set the world a-twitter by replying “Because it’s 2015”.

Trudeau received widespread accolades for the move, although some pointed out that the power positions in Cabinet (Defence, Public Safety, Foreign Affairs, Finance) mainly went to the men (Justice went to an Aboriginal woman).  Trudeau also had to quickly clarify that five of the fifteen women initially styled as ‘Ministers of State’ (junior positions) were in fact full-fledged Ministers – and Treasury Board rules had to be changed to reflect their full status.

So while Canadian women have had high expectations, it may be too early to judge Trudeau’s record on women’s issues; he has after all spent only one year in office.  However, he set the bar high and the country is watching.  MacLean’s recently ran an article questioning Trudeau’s feminism and his commitment to addressing “the intersections and injustices that underlie gender inequality”; can he actually move the needle on some of these issues?

Last week, the government’s legislation requiring publicly traded companies to disclose the gender composition of their corporate boards and senior management, came up for second reading debate in the House of Commons.  The hope is that disclosure (I suppose you could call it a mild form of public shaming) would spur the companies to adopt policies aimed at increasing female representation on their boards.

Such legislation probably wouldn’t have been all that newsworthy except to the most dedicated policy wonks on the Hill, but for a comment made by Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.  In an interview, Minister Bains highlighted the importance that the Government of Canada places on diversity and referred to changes seen in other countries after the imposition of voluntary disclosures measures.  Then Bains went on to state “But in a few years, if we don’t see progress – in a few years, if we don’t see meaningful results – then we will re-evaluate our position and look at all other options at that time”.

All other options…… did he mean quotas?

Let’s back up a moment.  What’s going on in the corporate boards of Canadian companies?  Why is this disclosure legislation even necessary and what could compel the government to impose the dreaded quotas?

According to reporting compiled by Status of Women Canada, women make up almost half of the Canadian labour force, nearly 25% of senior managers in Canada, and more than one-third of Canadian MBA graduates.  Yet only 14.5% of directors of Financial Post 500 (FP500) companies are women.  Remove Crown corporations from the calculation and women make up only 10% of directors; nearly 40% of FP500 companies and close to 50% of publicly traded companies have no female directors.  (Full sourcing for these facts is available on the Status of Women Canada website, HERE).

These figures mean that Canadian companies are missing out on top talent and inherently failing to capitalize on their full potential: research has shown that companies with women on their boards tend to outperform their all-male counterparts, yielding not only stronger financial performance but also heightened innovation, attraction and retention of talent, enhanced client insight and other measures.

So it’s not just a gender issue; in the famous words of Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign – it’s the economy, stupid!

In a shrinking world where global trade (and thus global competition) is more and more important, companies need to ensure they are doing everything possible to perform at the highest levels.  This means revolutionizing their operations; creative benefit plans offering unlimited vacation, flexible office layouts prioritizing collaboration, and oh yeah – promoting women.

But it seems that the C-suite and directorships on corporate boards remain stubbornly elusive for the ladies, thus the government’s legislation.  To be clear, the current bill only requires disclosure, it doesn’t require quotas and it doesn’t even set targets for board composition.  The bill just proposes throwing open the doors and shedding light on corporate realities.  As I mentioned before, the bill probably would have meandered its way through the House and the Senate and passed into law without most of us even being aware of its existence.

Except for that dreaded Q word.

There is perhaps understandably some resistance to quotas, from men and women alike.  The pushback ranges from the sadly predictable sexism (“maybe there is a very good reason for the board to be made up of who it is”) to the understandable reticence (“quotas would negate the efforts of all the women who worked incredibly hard to get to where they are”).

The sexism, expressed in the stereotypical assumption of white male competence, is almost funny in how seemingly blind it is to its place at the root of the problem being discussed.  The reticence is trickier to address – it is often expressed by women who hear the word quotas and anticipate the inevitable questioning of their skills and qualifications for their current job or the one they hope to acquire.

Quotas are messy and controversial and probably ineffectively applied in at least some cases.  Hopefully they are not necessary, and Canadian corporations (and public sector departments) will respond to gentler incentives such as the kind included in the pending legislation.

Because no matter how “true” of a feminist Justin Trudeau is, he is right about one thing: the time has come for real, tangible equality of the sexes, and that means not just equality of opportunity but equality of power.

In a speech to a Women In The World conference, Meryl Streep articulated this far more eloquently than I can hope to do.  I’ve been watching it over and over again today, her words and her passion are so moving.

If you can’t (or chose not to) watch, here are her powerful words:

For millennia, thousands of years in most cultures, the voices of women did not resound in the halls of justice, or from the pulpit, or the podium, in Parliament and Senates, the Court, or in the very important meetings of very important men where the course of history was set. 

It’s all very very very very very recent.  Only a hundred, a little bit more than a hundred years ago, which is a fraction of a millisecond on the whole human clock.  Most of us; our priorities, our concerns, our achievements, were invisible.  So this has been a profound, if uneven change, and it’s still taking place under real time. 

You could make a case that along with the technological revolution, the most provocative, upending, destabilizing, thrilling change in the course of human history is that we are finally in it.

The most provocative, upending, destabilizing, thrilling change in the course of human history is the inclusion of women in all spheres, all professions, all levels of power.  Let’s not let our discomfort with quotas get in the way of finding a way to make that happen.


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