Management / Rene Carayol: Why quotas are a poor substitute for decisive action and leadership

Rene Carayol: Why quotas are a poor substitute for decisive action and leadership

The problem of women in business and the “glass ceiling” is still to be cracked. The Norwegians are leading the way with quotas for women on boards but, thankfully, this has not yet been adopted in the UK.


While the problem and challenge of breaking  the glass ceiling is very real, quotas and other forms of positive discrimination carry many pitfalls and I, for one, have yet to see anything positive about discrimination.

We all have long been aware of what the issues really are and the solution does not require new analysis, but as long as boards and senior executive teams are led and dominated by men, the challenge will remain intractable. The solution resides in the resolve and determination of our current business leaders.

The Government’s Women’s Business Council (GWBC) has been vocal on how to achieve breakthroughs. Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive of MITIE said, “Women should not just try to fit into the economy, they should be shaping it.” Another clarion call has come from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook with her provocative and heavily publicised book Lean In offering similar assertive counsel.

Yes, these women worked very hard to succeed, but what really sets them apart is that they identified a passion, took risks and seized opportunities.

Women are regularly associated with being better at the softer skills such as communication, listening and teamwork; these will continue to be vital features for business leaders in the future, but women must better leverage these capabilities. This will apply necessary pressure on the organisation’s leadership to recognise and reward their leadership potential.

Pavita Cooper is an adviser on gender strategy and selection; she works with both organisations and senior women. Cooper says: “Women face many complex dilemmas in the workplace: self-assurance is often perceived as over confidence, empathy and nurturing – generally more female traits – are rarely valued when measuring potential.  It is no surprise then that women who adapt their style to ‘fit’ can be accused of being ‘difficult’ or worse still, trying to be a man.”

In a world where many traditional and inward- looking institutions are failing because the bosses continue to employ in their own image, progressive firms are desperate for diversity of experience, behaviour and thinking.

While working as the global director of talent in both Barclays and Lloyds Banking Group it became very clear to Cooper that “women didn’t need to compete head on with men, but they did need the courage and resolve to continue to out-perform their peer group and be noticed in their own right”.

On a recent trip to Kenya I was part of a group that visited Safaricom, one of the largest mobile networks in Africa. CEO, Robert Collymore, shared the most instructive of stories. Safaricom were after the best marketing leader in Eastern Africa, which led them to Rita Okuthe. She was seven  months pregnant – Collymore offered her the job.

This sits alongside the appointment of Marissa Mayer who was appointed CEO of Yahoo in July of 2012 while she was pregnant. She gave birth in September and is now at the helm of Yahoo leading the toughest of turnarounds.

These are both fantastic role models yet it is very clear at Safaricom and Yahoo that there are no glass ceilings. More importantly, both businesses have now become beacons of opportunity for talented women. Everybody wins by doing the right thing.

Quotas are a poor substitute for real leadership and decisive action.

Women are best at being women and men are best at being men; we need to value and capitalise upon that difference. It’s the culture that needs fixing, not women.



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