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Should the U.S. consider gender boardroom quotas?
Europe has taken the lead in making boards more balanced
All too common.
All too common. (Thinkstock)
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n Germany, where women hold just 12 percent of corporate board seats, the Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democrats this week agreed on a gender quota for German companies. Under the law, companies will have to fill 30 percent of their non-executive board seats with women starting in 2016. Companies that fail to meet that quota will have to leave those seats vacant.

Plenty of Germans are not crazy about the idea. "It's a toad that we're going to have to swallow," CDU parliamentarian Michael Fuchs told RTE. "There are companies where that's going to be difficult."

In the U.S., the idea is even less popular. Considerably so. Critics say such legislation does women no favors by ignoring the underlying causes of sexism. And allowing Congress — which men dominate 82 to 18 percent — to forcefully boost women in the corporate could serve to reinforce the stereotype that women are helpless without men.

Then there's the issue of "crowding." In 2011, a World Development Report said gender quotas "may crowd out other marginalized ethnic or socioeconomic groups."

"By reserving certain positions for women, there will be fewer positions open for candidates from other groups that are also underrepresented," it said.

There's also the issue of forcing companies to pass over the most qualified candidates. Some professions simply attract more men. A 30 percent gender quota on boards of construction or mining companies would force the company to hire against its industry's statistical slant.

And perhaps most importantly from a business perspective, the World Bank's research suggests gender quotas may be bad for business. "While female entry on boards is correlated with changing management practices, this change appears to adversely influence short-run profits," it says.

Still, it points out, "Whether this is partly driven by negative perceptions of female management choices remains an open question."

With so many arguments against quotas, why should the U.S. even start discussing them?

"Even the threat of quotas gets companies to hire women," Heather Horn says in The Atlantic. The conversation in Europe seems to have set off a string of changes. In 2011, the 30 companies on the DAX, Germany's blue-chip stock index, pledged to adjust gender proportions on their own volition, which resulted in some gender-based hiring. Since then, France, Italy, Spain, and other European countries have instituted their own quotas for public companies. Even the quota-less U.K. last week reached the highest percentage of female board members ever — 19 percent.

By contrast, the U.S. is kind of stuck on gender workplace issues. Women hold just 16.1 percent of board seats, and 14.3 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies. The wage gap has been stalled at 77 cents on the dollar since 2002, while employment participation — the percentage of women either working or looking for jobs — has lingered around 57 percent for the same time period.

Given that disparity, a public conversation — beyond the pages of books like Lean In — about gender workplace inequities might be in order for the U.S. Even if it didn't lead to a quota (and don't worry, it wouldn't), it may at least inspire other legislation that may foster female inclusion at work — like neutral parental leave policies, for example.

Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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