Last week, Nat was at the UX NZ conference – a two-day event jam packed with ideas, inspiration, and something that’s now become very normal. Being in a hall full of people is nowhere near normal these days, so what felt strangely ordinary? The incredible diversity of speakers.
Those who’ve been around the block a time or two will remember the good old days when the word ‘conference’ was synonymous with manels and single-sex speaker lists. Change didn’t happen by chance. Many of us wrote to the organisers of different conferences asking where the women were, others curated contact lists for those who found it ‘too hard to find female experts’, and yes, some publicly named and shamed. As a result, many conferences introduced quotas.
It’s been proven time and time again. From Fire Departments to Parliaments, quotas have increased the representation of everyone apart from white men. Increased representation has, in turn, led to better retention, productivity and profits. It’s a no-brainer, and, like most habits, once established, quotas become unconscious. Diversity becomes the norm.
But, we should scrap them.
Humans suffer from loss aversion, which has made quotas extremely unpopular with one dominant group. It’s hard to have things taken off you, and removing half the familiar seats at the table is no small thing. The loss felt by many men has led to a crisis that some of us, as beneficiaries of colonialism, might also suffer if we were forced to give up advantages we lucked into.
As empathetic leaders, it’s not good enough to laugh off the misfortunes of the pale and male. And frankly, we’re tired of maintaining a straight face while explaining that the over-representation of one group at the top disproves the ‘best person for the job’ argument. So let’s get rid of quotas. Let’s stop putting the burden on minorities to justify their rise up the ranks.
The pitch for a quota-free world
The problem with quotas is they’re a cop-out. They shriek of charity – of creating space for representation just because. At a time when women leaders are quitting in their highest numbers ever because they feel unrecognised, organisations looking for healthy talent pipelines need to act. So let’s flip the script and ask, ‘what do organisations gain through diverse leadership?’ An incredibly valuable variety of skills, experience and knowledge, that’s what.
Instead of mandating, say, a 30% quota, why not instead identify and seek out the unique qualities that women bring? Yes, nature and nurture do have an impact on the skills, opportunities and experiences of different groups – that’s why we call it equity, not equality. Off the top of our heads, we can think of a few vital characteristics predominantly found in women, yet we rarely see them recognised in job descriptions or performance reviews:
- Perspective: Women control 85% of household spending, so they’re probably responsible for the decision to buy most products and services. Having members of a business’s target market on the leadership team gives them a head start in understanding their behaviour (and avoiding embarrassing faux pas).
- Empathy and connection: While studies show that gender may not impact overall emotional intelligence, it does affect the skills that make it up. Men outperform women in assertiveness and confidence, and women beat men in empathy and interpersonal relationships. Want an engaged workforce? Seek out these traits when filling leadership positions.
- Culture: Men are more likely to make ‘visible’ workplace contributions, like attending optional meetings, while women engage in ‘invisible’ and time-consuming activities like mentoring, organising social events and DEI initiatives. Umm, how are these activities invisible? They’re the key to a strong culture, especially in a hybrid world. They need to be recognised as the vital contributions they are.
Yes, we’re being slightly tongue-in-cheek about quotas. Again, for those in the back seats, they work. But quotas aren’t a checkbox exercise; they are a tool for improving organisational performance. Top talent should be recognised, not tokenised.
Let’s use smart tools to remove bias from job ads, review the leadership traits that are advertised for, and seek strong collaborators and communicators. It’s time to redefine connecting as a skill, not a social club task.
Rather than force women to justify their right to the seat they’re given at the table, let’s challenge ourselves as leaders to do the work of defining why we deserve to be there.
30 second action:
Take note of the ‘invisible tasks’ you do to keep your workplace culture humming – mentoring, celebrations and social activities, cards and gifts, snacks, conflict resolution, playing therapist, and diversity education. At your next 1 on 1, include them in your list of valuable contributions.