Boss Lady

Women in tech leadership: the case against quotas


Almost exactly a year ago, this blog featured a piece highlighting a lack of gender balance in board rooms across many of the top Fortune 500 companies. At the core of that article was an infographic that neatly illustrated the extent of the imbalance.

In 2017, the same research methods were used for a follow-up study looking specifically at the tech industry. Although broadly viewed as more progressive than many of the more ‘traditional’ sectors making up the bulk of the Fortune 500 list, it seems that major tech industry brands are just as guilty of gender bias – if not more so – when it comes to promoting women into their upper echelons.

Mostly ones and zeroes

The gender makeup of executive- and director-level boards at companies including Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Samsung and Intel were examined to produce the more recent infographic, which reveals a sadly familiar pattern.

Of all the brands studied, the executive board at Cisco came out with the highest ratio of female members: 3 of 7, or just under 43%. The same company’s directorship also fared relatively well compared to others in the sample group, with 4 of 12 (33%) director seats being held by women. Elsewhere, the numbers consistently struggled even to break a 1/4 threshold, typically hovering somewhere between 10%-20% (and, in the notable case of Samsung, landing a flat zero at both executive and director level).

Simple quotas aren’t the answer

The Business Woman Media boardroom gender piece from last year touched briefly on the issue of quotas, noting that ‘some companies have quotas they need to satisfy in terms of representation […] but that just isn’t good enough. Why not? Simply because that isn’t equality.’

It’s a view held by many. Notably, experienced board director Shefaly Yogendra addressed the question of whether enforced quotas ‘end up demeaning women board members rather than shattering the glass ceiling’ in an article for She concluded:

“My meritocratic self says women need no quotas or affirmative action, mainly because women playing for board roles are as smart as — if not smarter than — most men vying for those roles. My pragmatic self […] knows that incumbency is not broken by pretending that everyone plays on a level field.

“My pragmatic self also says that if I get to serve on a board, I should and will hold space for those who have the right experience and who deserve a chance, but won’t get it… To that extent, I will not ask or lobby for quotas but I will support endeavours such as the 30% Club […] which are about industry leadership openly pledging their commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

A grassroots approach

The Tech London Advocates’ WOMENINTECH group is a strong advocate for the need to address this issue via the longer-term path – from within the industry, making changes from the ground up – by expanding the pool of new talent to allow for improved recruitment to future tech board positions.

To this end, they’ve come up with a list of practical measures for improving the gender balance of female leadership within existing organisations.

Similar measures have been proposed by various industry experts and gender equality analysts, many of which focus on earlier promotion of women in tech. The key theory essentially states that, by providing an increased range of female role models across the sector, more women in education will be inspired to pursue careers in what has traditionally been a very male-dominated field.

In many ways, it’s coming down to something of a race. The building pressure to quickly set right the current statistical wrongs makes it more likely that we’ll see an increased prevalence of quota systems in the short-term.

On the other hand, a current industry-wide skill shortage poses a significant threat to the overall health of the tech sector – one that could easily be addressed by increasing the through-flow of women from education into tech careers. The latter, however, requires a more structured and long-term commitment than mere quotas alone can deliver.

More constructive solutions needed in tech

While certain countries have experienced a degree of ‘success’ with quota systems, others remain determined that a more grassroots solution needs to be found.

Germany, as an example representing one side of the quota debate, has been running a 30% minimum requirement for some of its top 100 companies since 2016. Conversely, Jet Bussemaker, the Dutch Minister of Education and Emancipation, is adamant that quotas represent a “kill or cure remedy”, and has pledged to do “everything I can to prevent a quota from happening”.

The need for a more fundamental shift in the way women are signposted towards tech careers is an idea that’s catching on, and there have already been some very positive moves in this direction. Last year the UK Government’s announced it had established a 50/50 gender split across its Digital Advisory Board, and McKinsey reported at the start of 2017 that a gradual shift towards overall parity on the boards of the top 25 US companies did appear to be happening (slowly).

Whether more good news will arrive quickly enough to stave off the wider spread of quota systems, however, remains to be seen. In tech, where numerous analysts have actually observed a worsening situation over the past 12 months, there will certainly need to be some pretty fundamental changes made either way in the near future.

About Morgan Franklin

Morgan Franklin is a freelance writer and designer who works with media around the world. He is interested in many subjects but at the moment largely covers gender equality, business ethics and the environment.

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