Only 5% of the 500 CEOs on the 2018 Fortune 500 list are women, a mere 24 out of 500. (A decrease from an all-time high of 32 in 2017.) Despite diversity initiatives in companies, gender representation remains a persistent problem in leadership and in the workforce in general. Research shows that employers still lean toward hiring and promoting men over women. To counteract this tendency, tools like quotas can increase female representation in industries and positions where they are underrepresented.

Below, we’ve curated a collection of our best research and insights on this subject.

Gender quotas are a measurement tool which establishes a defined proportion or number of places or seats to be allocated to women and/or men. For example, Norway implemented gender quotas in 2003-04 for corporate boards requiring no gender to represent less than 40% of the board. These quotas are being extended to many jurisdictions around the world.

Progress toward gender equality is sluggish, despite massive investments in diversity initiatives. To fight the persistence of bias in our systems, organizations and policy makers are increasingly turning to quotas (or hard targets) to accelerate the process. Although gender quotas do not fully address the systemic issues that result in the gender gap, they can assist organizations in achieving gender balance.

The idea of quotas is controversial because of the “myth of meritocracy.” We believe that individuals are selected for opportunities or promotions based solely on their abilities and skills­. However, research shows that our systems for evaluating people and investments are skewed by implicit biases. Therefore, tools like quotas may help safeguard against the impact of bias which causes inequalities in the economy. Indeed, research suggests that quotas are associated with increases in the average qualifications of individuals and effectiveness of groups (such as boards) that have them.

The debate about quotas

The debate about quotas

Because of this sluggish progress toward gender equality, organizations and policymakers are increasingly considering the possibility of implementing quotas, particularly at the level of board directors, to achieve gender parity. Quotas, it is argued, would jump-start the process of achieving equal representation. Yet, the idea of imposing quotas on employers–even only at the level of the board of directors–has been met with resistance. As a result, quotas have remained shrouded in controversy about their expected benefits and potential pitfalls. Leading scholars gathered to debate this question during the Gender and the Economy Research Roundtable held at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

The Brief: Do gender quotas really work?

This explainer is based on our Oxford-style debate on the effectiveness of gender quotas hosted by GATE in 2017.

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