Stress Test for Quotas?

As with most complex questions, there are no simple answers. Do quotas,in fact, demean the very women they mean to promote? Do they treat men unfairly? What’s a company to do?


After my appearance on CNBC a couple of weeks ago, I find myself frequently embroiled in two kinds of conversations around the thorny issue of creating better gender balance at the tops of organizations: pro-quota and anti-quota.


Very little in between.

Passionate opponents of quotas insist that quotas NEVER make sense: quotas are by definition disrespectful to really talented and hard-working women (whose genuine accomplishments will be diminished by whispers of favoritism) and unfair to hard-working, deserving males (particularly those on the cusp of the Big Promotion–it is unfair to rewrite the rules just as the brass ring swings within reach).

Equally passionate pro-quota advocates see NO ALTERNATIVE to hard targets, either for reasons of competitiveness or to ensure that talented women stick around. In this world view, the Gender Law of Inertia states that subtle, entrenched biases in talent management, leadership development and succession planning processes will never to allow women to succeed without a quota to force the numbers. These advocates also deeply suspect that senior level men will never willingly relinquish their C-level mancations (aka executive off-sites).

In fact, I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between. As Anne Weisberg, Talent Director at Deloitte says: “The number of women in senior leadership is really just a leading indicator of the quality of an organization’s culture and its talent management processes.” In other words, more women indicate a robust meritocracy–which everyone agrees is critical to high performance.

Therefore, I propose that organizations–and the stakeholders who care how they do–subject themselves to a Stress Test for Quotas™ akin to the stress test banks underwent two years ago to see if they teetered on the brink of insolvency, or were safe. Can you advance without a quota, or do you need one? The questions are below, and I invite you to answer electronically in my non-scientific poll. I will share the results of the poll in a future blog.


For the company you are rating, to what extent …

  1. Does the composition of the senior leadership team reflect the demographics of the customer base?
  2. Does the composition of the senior leadership team reflect the gender demographics being recruited for future management positions?
  3. Is the company competitive in its peer group?
  4. Is the company trying to retain talented women?
  5. Has the organization succeeded in retaining talented women?
  6. Does the company have a credible action plan for retaining, developing and advancing women?
  7. Does the senior leadership team visibly support gender equity throughout the organization, including at the top?
  8. Are senior executives genuinely excited about having women in their ranks?

The answers to these questions will help your organization determine whether or not they need a “stick” called a quota to make changes, or if the “carrot” of greater competitiveness and more genuine meritocracy is moving your company where it needs to go.

I look forward to your comments. Please leave comments below, or write to me.