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Gender quotas in the workplace: Do they work and should we have them?

November 13, 2018

As the voices grow louder demanding equality in the workplace - as women continue to be under-represented in senior positions and a significant wages gap still exists - we look at gender quotas, what they are, whether they work and if we should have them.

Gender quotas: it is a contentious topic that elicits some strong opinions. Yet with women continuing to be under-represented on company boards and paid less than men on average, there is clearly more that still needs to be done to redress gender inequality.

Steven Ansicar, Managing Director of Diversity Australia since 2015, said gender diversity in the workplace had been shown to improve the morale and often the bottom line of businesses.


“Quotas are an admission of guilt that your systems and processes haven’t worked,” Asnicar said, cutting straight to his point. “Ideally, we should focus on the right person for a role not the right gender, race, religion or sexuality.


“I think most Australian businesses are frightened by gender quotas and in a number of recent organisational reviews many people, both male and female, commented that after quotas were announced they lost staff. They felt it was a tokenistic approach that didn’t fix the systemic issues, but masked them under a different heading.


“However, business and society benefit from diversity,” he said.


“The ability to provide great service to customers is about making sure the employee base has as much in common with the end user. This brings a better understanding of the services required and better meets the customer’s needs.”

Journalist Catherine Fox (pictured right), the Financial Review’s former Corporate Woman columnist and author of Stop Fixing Women, said quotas in the workplace were a necessary step to addressing gender imbalance.



But she stressed they are simply one step which needs to be consciously built upon.

“I think quotas can be a very effective and temporary tool which is a stepping stone to change,” she said. “Quotas change the complexion of a cohort and are designed to eventually become redundant. We have tried a lot of ways to improve gender equality in the workplace including targets. It’s not that much of a stretch to formalise or legislate for that.”


For many Australians, the notion of equal gender representation in the workplace is non-threatening and something which should be an obvious goal. Despite this, the reality is that women are far from equally represented in the workforce and the higher you look up the corporate ladder, the less likely you are to see women.


Data from the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) shows that in 2017, men working full-time were still paid an average 22.4 per cent higher than their female peers and this is an improvement of less than one per cent on 2016.


Fox said if there was a need to support the argument for advocating women’s rise through the workplace, you need look no further than the number of women who are running ASX200 companies.


“If you look at the ASX200, I think women are running about 10 of those companies,” Fox said. “It has been said before that there are more men named ‘John’ or ‘David’ running ASX 200 companies than there are women. I would argue it is not because of a lack of merit, skills or qualifications.


“We have very high levels of women being educated and women account for about 47 per cent of the workforce. This is not a supply issue; this is about demand.”


Watermark Search International in its 2018 Board Diversity Index, shows that women hold just 26 per cent of Directorships with ASX200 companies and that the target of the Australian Institute of Company Directors of women having 30 per cent representation on Boards by 2018 would not be realised.


“Only about 22 per cent of equity partnerships in law firms are women and women are graduating in higher numbers than men from our law schools,” Fox continued.