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Corporate Gender Quotas Will Not Fix Sexism

07/24/2014 12:37 EDT | Updated 09/22/2014 05:59 EDT
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Lately there's been a lot of talk about the lack of women on corporate boards.

All this talk is certainly justified - the numbers are truly dismal. In Canada, women only comprise ten per cent of corporate board members.

Those are the kind of numbers you'd expect to see in 1972, not in 2014.

Yes, it's a problem, but no, it's not something that can be truly "fixed" overnight with law.

But that's exactly what Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette is proposing. Her private member's bill will institute a quota system that will mandate that 40 per cent of all corporate board members must be female.

The Liberals aren't alone in their call for quotas, the NDP have come out in favour of them as well. NDP MP Niki Ashton has said she supports gender quotas for federal crown boards.

That's the kind of policy you'd expect to see in 1972, not in 2014.

According to Hervieux-Payette, "law is the right place to start...so that women in Canada are contributing to the level of their talents."

This is the same tired refrain we have heard from the Liberals and NDP for years and years, as they've come out batting for gender quotas in the electoral system too.

It's time to put this relic of a policy back in the time machine for good.

While there's no doubt Hervieux-Payette's intentions are in the right place, her proposed "solution" is very misplaced.

Merit, not the law, is the right place to start if we want to see more women in the boardroom.

Women should be on boards, in public office, and on judicial benches not because they tick a box on a form, but because they are smart, talented and have earned these positions through hard work and merit.

Gender quotas result in good numbers on paper, but that's about all they do for the advancement of women. In reality, gender quotas simply reinforce tokenism and push the sexist belief that women somehow aren't "good enough" to earn power on their own.

Quotas are downright patronizing, insulting and marginalizing. Let's be honest, how many of us women would actually want to sit on a board if it's just to fill some quota?

Women, like all people, want to be recognized for their hard work and merit, not their anatomy.

There are many real barriers facing women in the corporate world, but quotas just create another barrier to substantive female involvement.

We already know there is no lack of amazing women out there with incredible talents to contribute -- so what can be done to start seeing more of them on corporate boards?

The Government of Canada's Advisory Council for Promoting Women on Boards has some good ideas which they have included in a report released by the Minister of Status of Women, Kellie Leitch.

When it comes to the private sector, the Advisory Council emphasizes mentorship, professional development and networking opportunities for women.

A good example of this that I have seen firsthand is the Canadian Bar Association's Women's Lawyer's Forum, which is very active and offers a lots of opportunities to connect with other lawyers in the profession. It also runs a great mentorship program that is really beneficial to young lawyers.

Encouraging women to be involved in organizations within their professions helps them get their names out there and network with other movers and shakers.

When it comes to the public service and crown corporations, the Advisory Council suggests private-public sector partnerships to bring in more private sector women to public sector boards.

One idea not addressed by the report is the role that existing women's networking organizations can play. Groups like the Women's Executive Network work with the corporate sector to promote women's representation on boards. There are many other women's groups out there that could be doing the same. It's time for them to take initiative and lead by example, rather than just lament the lack of women at the helms of power.

Finally, the corporate sector needs to step up to the plate. Saying they can't find enough women to fill board spots is not an acceptable. If companies want to find strong female talent for their boards, they need to get out the office and recruit, just like they would to find good staff. This is not an easy process and sometimes means looking in unlikely places.

The Liberal-NDP "solution" of gender quotas is about as good of an idea as implementing government printed "binders full of women." At the end of the day, it's just paper deep.

Let's focus on getting women a real voice in the boardroom, not just a reserved seat at the table.

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