Quota systems will not lead to genuine transformation for women

Quota systems will not lead to genuine transformation for women

Courtesy of Business Day Live

A SUCCESSFUL male leader said to me recently that he had been an outsider since an early age and that this “made me work harder, smarter and made me hungrier about becoming an insider”.

The Canadian Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in 2008 in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, noting, “there are times when being an outsider is precisely what makes you a good insider”, and that this was particularly true of minorities.

Women are the world’s largest “minority”. While making up 52% of the population here in SA, when it comes to representation they can be considered outsiders on a vast, gender-based scale.

The withdrawal of the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill last year was an excellent and perceptive move by Minister of Women in the Presidency Susan Shabangu.

Business leaders were quite right to strongly oppose the bill as they would have been paying the price of its many flaws. With its emphasis on numerically equal representation and with the threat of fines and even imprisonment if numbers were not met by a certain date, the bill was not only punitive and counterproductive, it was potentially irreversibly damaging to women.

Quota systems do not work. They have not worked anywhere in the world and they will not work here. Legislating what is essentially a numbers game will see a simple tick-box response, which is nothing like genuine representation.

Such a bill will set women up to fail. Women will be offered jobs they will feel obliged to take. (How grateful they will be for the opportunity.) But one that they may not be ready for? This will result in a particularly unattractive double-whammy: the women will feel out of their depth and incompetent and, if they fail, others will play the “I told you so” card or point out that “this is what happens when you put a woman in the job”.

Genuine transformation for women, irrespective of colour or class, is about owning their ambition. It is about having the right to make decisions about their lives and themselves first, before they feel compelled to make decisions in the workplace, especially if forced on them by an unrealistic and simple quota system.

If a woman is comfortable at a middle-management level, she needs to know that staying there and being the best middle manager she can be is right for her and is her choice.

The ideal gender equality bill would entail a planned system that shows an incremental development of women over a period of time. Women, like men, evolve in their personal and professional lives. Real power over personal decision-making would mean that women would feel comfortable about delaying taking a position until they had acquired the skills and experience to move into it seamlessly. This makes sense for women and for business.

Empowerment and transformation within an organisational culture should mean succession plans are in place across all levels, not just at the top, so constant evaluations of progress can be implemented in real time and within a realistic timeframe.

There are times in our lives, both for men and women, when we need to be ambitious and times when we need to back off a little. None of us follow a linear trajectory of change or personal development. Unfortunately, some people think that enforcing a quota system can actually change this reality; that by insisting that with the “right” numbers a quota system can bypass life’s vagaries. It cannot.

There are many male leaders in this country who have done exceptionally well in empowering women to reach their full potential. There are also companies that have done significantly better than others in this regard. We need to shine a spotlight on these success stories and emulate their models. Internal mentoring or, more often, an internal sponsor is one way to ensure women are empowered at the correct pace and level, having someone who will walk alongside them and ready them for a position.

All of this feeds into that all-important succession planning which, done in an incremental, monitored and collaborative way, means that a change in an organogram will require little more than the replacement of a single slide.

A gender bill that reflects, rather than dictates, how women have control over their personal and professional objectives — and that understands ambition is not a pejorative term when used in relation to women — will ensure that by the time we see the triumphant release of statistics about women in business or government the right training and preparation for them to move into these decision-making positions will have started behind the scenes long before.

Wider consultation on the bill will, hopefully, result in a blueprint for genuine change rather than a promissory note for dubiously realised “progress”. Only that way can we get to a point where we can stop talking about women in leadership and just talk about leadership. That, surely, is the goal.

• Chengadu is the executive director of the Centre for Leadership and Dialogue at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.

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