Testing Equality: How Mandatory Quotas Worked Out for Women in Business

Norway mandated quotas for women in board of director roles in business. It didn't go terribly, but it didn't really go great either.
Fun Fact: when I searched for pictures of professional women, I mostly got pictures of women frolicking on the beach and men in suits.
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You know how people are talking now about the need for more women on the boards of directors of large companies? Well, the eternally-advanced folks in Norway (and a few other European countries) were on that ten years ago, and now we have some statisticsto see how it went.

Specifically, in 2008, Norway decided that all publicly-listed companies needed to have at least 40% of the members on boards of directors as women.

The results? To be brief, they are mixed.

The big fears were not realized.

There weren't a bunch of token women who don't understand things being shoved into powerful roles, nor were a tiny pool of qualified women being stretched way too thin (a bit of that did happen, but it happened with men too, so it wasn't necessarily related to the quotas).

The expected benefits, however, also went unrealized.

The whole point of quotas for women in top-level management is to improve the upward trajectory of women in business and help reduce the wage gap. (There are also arguments made that companies with more women in leadership are more profitable and make better decisions, but that usually comes up when proponents of quotas are trying to get heartless capitalists on their side. They are also pure correlation.)

The frustrating truth is that none of those benefits materialized. The companies didn't suddenly become havens for women to rise in the ranks, nor did they close the pay gap for any but a few super-qualified ladies (condescendingly referred to as "golden skirts" - yay for finding ways to demean successful women!)

So what now, then?

It didn't fail as spectacularly as some feared, but it sure didn't succeed either. It might be tempting to just wash our hands and walk away from trying to encourage equity in the workplace, but ah-ha! I think that's the wrong takeaway.

If you ask me, this is EXCITING. This is DATA. This is INFORMATION. Now we know some precise things that didn't work, and we can ask ourselves: do we want to iterate, make a few adjustments to the same idea, and try again? Should we, instead, try something totally different? What could have been the main reasons for the failure here?

If you ask me, one of the main problems is that of culture. Inserting a few women, even at the top, isn't going to automatically change the culture of an organization. In fact, most women who rise to a level that they would be invited onto the board of a larger company probably got there by playing the game and fitting into a corporate culture, not challenging it.

So what else could we try?

We could assume that quotas take more time to work their magic and give it ten more years.

We could take the quotas-plus approach and say that quotas are important, but not quite enough. Perhaps in addition companies need to do culture-audits to see what practices and expectations are being put in place and how they impact both male and female employees.

We could try a whole different approach: take the childcare burden off the table by instituting universal childcare AND mandating both parents take leave when the child is born so that it's not just the mothers who get directly involved in the day-to-day of raising a child.

We could start taking allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace much more seriously.

We could make it so that companies aren't allowed to have official meetings in strip clubs or other such places.

We could try going full Jurassic Park, wait for the dinosaurs to kill all the men, and have women inherit the earth. (Okay, that one's not serious, I just like that Jurassic Park quote.)

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