Barb Stinnett, an early computer science enthusiast, became Hewlett Packard’s director of worldwide sales in 2000. She was 41-years-old, a rare female executive in technology and the only woman to sit on the board of American Multiplexer Corporation, a public telecommunications firm in Silicon Valley.
Stinnett was optimistic the gender ratio would eventually balance — at that table and across the country. “But in the 30 years since I started my career,” she said, “there hasn’t been much change at all.”
Despite both the lack of change and the strong desire for it, Stinnett and many other American business women aren’t interested in pushing for one of the few measures that could quickly and dramatically increase the presence of women in the boardroom: quotas.
It’s a move many European countries have taken, following Norway’s decision 12 years ago to mandate gender quotas on corporate boards. France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany have since adopted similar measures. The United Kingdom may not be far off. British Business Secretary Vince Cable recently announced that a quota may become mandatory if there isn’t faster progress made without it.
So, why does the idea repel so many U.S. women?
Part of a complicated answer: There’s skepticism quotas are effective at fixing the systemic problems that lead to unequal representation in the first place. Beyond that: a worry the measure could paint brilliant candidates as obligatory hires.
This fear of “tokenism” shows up not just in conversations with female executives but in the approaches of U.S. advocacy organizations that are dedicated to getting more women on boards.
Sheila Ronning, CEO and founder of Women in the Boardroom, said quotas could create a perception of token hires when, in reality, there’s a vast supply of qualified women in corporate America. Rather than pushing for target numbers, her organization works to connect more than 15,000 high-powered clients to upper echelon gigs: “We have women,” Ronning said, “not in binders!”
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