Measure it - practical issues and experiences

100 Women Leaders

There is strong support for targets with increasing support for quotas, with many women not liking quotas but supporting their introduction in view of the slow progress on women in leadership.  The more practical issue facing women is not whether they support targets or quotas but how to respond to an offer of a position in pursuit of a company’s gender targets.

100 Women Leaders is a national study by the Reibey Institute, aiming to identify the pathways and key success factors for women leaders in corporate Australia. Advice to self is one of eight themes identified in the series.

We spoke to 100 female leaders about their views on measurable objectives to achieve more women in leadership.  Specifically

  • the use of targets (voluntary objectives which companies set themselves)
  • the introduction of quotas (obligatory outcomes established through national legislation)

And we asked how they have responded, or would think they would respond, to the offer of a position which helped a company meet gender targets. Their reflections cover three issues:

  1. The practical dilemmas faced by a woman offered a position to meet a target
  2. Targets: a consensus emerged with very strong support for these
  3. Quotas: strong views for and against by a minority, undecided but generally favourable views by many with a number explaining how they had changed their opinions in favour of quotas in recent years. Conventional ideas of merit are often no longer convincing. Overwhelmingly there is a sense of ‘it’s time!’.

Support for Targets

  • Yes we support Targets 80%
  • Maybe we support Targets 10%
  • No we don’t support Targets 4%

Support for Quotas

  • Pro quotas or supported the use of quotas 50%
  • Unsure – they were not either for or against 30%
  • Adamantly against quotas 20%

Discussion of the difference between targets and quotas and their pros and cons is available from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and the Melbourne Business School Gender Equality Project

Practical Dilemmas

How to react if faced with being the “woman who got the job because they wanted a woman”.

The experience of being offered a position or chance to be interviewed, because of being a woman, was reported by several of the women we interviewed. Many had either been in this position or had thought seriously about how they would react if they were. The interviews raised some critical questions and difficult dilemmas.

Views varied with those who would refuse, others who would seize the opportunity and a number who would accept with reservations.

What would these women do?

Refuse: Some were adamant they would not take a role that was allocated to a woman and had already turned down interviews when a headhunter has said – they want a woman.

  • I would not want to be the women [appointed] because of a quota.
  • Quotas & targets allow people to say she is only there because she is a woman.
  • [Quotas let] people say – she only got it because they needed the numbers.

Maybe: some said they would be hesitant but would take it because they felt there needs to be a critical mass in senior positions to pull others through to leadership.

  • I think quotas could be really helpful but the individuals will wear some damage even though the collective outcome is better. No-one is perfect and if a man is not perfect its OK – if it’s a women then they will say she shouldn’t have been there anyway.

Accept: others were very sure. Take it and don’t look back. Lead from the front. Does it matter how a door opens, through a contact, sponsor or a target? How likely is it that a business will appoint someone they think is not up to the job?

  • I have been one of the women in a target environment and I felt like it was a political play – but then my mindset changed …….. they are not going to put the business at risk [by appointing me if I wasn’t up to the job]. 
  • I was appointed when I was pregnant under an internal positive action programme: I accepted and haven’t looked back


A consensus emerged amongst the women we interviewed that, as a bare minimum for a gender strategy, companies should be setting targets to ensure women’s progression through the organisation.

  • For professional services there is an unconscious bias at every firm I have worked in.  What works is if leaders have a time frame to get number of women through.  They have to get close to it to learn what needs to change.  To find individuals they believe in. 


Those against quotas were adamant in their views. They were particularly preoccupied with arguments around merit and tokenism, fearing that women appointed under a quota might damage women’s interests more generally. Many of those who were supportive felt equally strongly, and had thought long and hard about these issues too. And they felt women had waited long enough, that’s it time for change. Others were reluctant supporters, feeling circumstances had made them make this choice. Several who had recently changed their views towards supporting quotas were in this group. The third group were undecided about whether quotas should be used but were tending towards their imposition. Views were many and varied but centred around a few core themes: merit, tokenism, impatience and indecision.

  • I think its sad that we have to do it but if its going to work then lets get on with it and do it and move on.

Merit: that advancement should be merit-based is a strongly held value in Australian society. So it is not surprising that many of the women we interviewed had thought deeply about this issue. Very few view the current system as rewarding merit; many don’t see that it does and consider quotas will help redefine the concept and overcome bias against women in particular roles. At the heart of the merit argument is a debate about whether quotas will cause merit to be overlooked or will uncover new talent, previously unrecognized.

Against quotas

  • I do not believe in quotas because I believe in merit.
  • Creates an adverse flow for people who are there on merit.
  • I understand quotas might be needed at some stage but I think better to be based on merit.

Supporting quotas

Merit-based appointments are not happening now

  • I know merit doesn’t happen now and that men get paid more than women. Maybe measurable objectives will force people to find merit and get the right mix
  • I see so many disappointing executives that get paid really well. Its so frustrating.
  • We have a lot of very average men on boards so the worst outcome is that we have average women as well. When I was working with board placements I was astounded at how men tout for positions. Like it’s a right.
  • Merit is an aspirational model. Merit based systems attract unmerited merit. If quotas are not the solution and the merit based system is not working then what’s next?
  • If that’s what is takes to remove unconscious bias then do it until it becomes normal
  • I would rather it wasn’t needed but if that’s what it takes then yes.
  • I believe this is an enabler to a more even playing field 
  • I used to not agree but now I completely agree. Used to think it will create a divide, but experience has shown me that people hire like themselves.
  • Five years ago I would have said no, but something has to change and break through

There is no lack of female talent

  • Quotas are not the best way but the best way we have available and that has not been tried. I do not believe there is a lack of pool of talent.
  • It’s regrettable [that there is a need for quotas] and I would not normally condone it. In my work more women go to uni than men but that is not represented at senior levels
  • The argument that you compromise on quality – well I don’t get that when you look at the number coming out of uni
  • From a quality point of view it just gets more people on the slate.
  • But if we don’t [have quotas] then we never get people into the frame of mind that women can have, and achieve in those roles. People need to wrap their head around the fact that women can do these roles

Tokenism: several interviewees discussed the fear that quotas would lead to the appearance of assisting women to progress but not result in effective change in a company. Appointment as a ‘token’ would be damaging for a woman – making her less authoritative in her role however good she is – and if she failed, this, in their view, may undermine women generally.

Against quotas

  • Leads to tokenism. I saw it in the USA. A black woman was promoted to tick a box and everyone talked about it.
  • Tokenism – undermines the value of women getting there
  • Danger is you might get a woman who is not capable and that does more harm. Invariably it will promote the wrong people just to meet a number.

Supporting quotas

Impatience/It’s time: many of the women we interviewed found the slow pace of change hard to take, with many ‘coming round’ to quotas in view of this. They supported targets but felt their experiences showed that to get progress on track quotas were needed to ‘force’ change..

  • There should be quotas or it will take a few lifetimes
  • I would have hoped that targets would have worked but they haven’t. So quotas are important
  • Unless it is imposed nothing will happen. We need a driver and this is the last option.
  • I have realised over time that nothing is going to change without them.
  • I don’t like the idea of quotas but I am over that. There is no progress. [We need them]
  • I used to think quotas were appalling, but we need them to force a mindset change. As unsavoury as it is I think we need quotas at a NED level. But not sure how it would work at.. exec level.

Undecided: nearly a third of women could not be sure of their stance on quotas. Their indecision is evident in their comments. Emerging from their interviews, however, it is apparent many have moved to supporting quotas or will do so, if significant change does not occur soon.

  • Mixed view but feel we do need quotas to break the cycle.
  • Emotionally I am torn – it feels wrong – but logically I know men need to work with women more and it will benefit the company and society
  • My view has changed over the years, I don’t like quotas because you will get the token label. But in reality it is not improving so I am softening my view.
  • Coming to the conclusion that there is a place for quotas. Do not feel diversity is yet embedded in the consciousness of decisions makers
  • Not sure the answer is either [targets or quotas] but I am not ruling them out.
  • I am not sure. It’s difficult to answer because I have been able to achieve by working hard and doing well. But I know that is not everyone’s experience. If there are true barriers because of bias then you need them.
  • Very difficult to answer. I can see both sides. Maybe a persistent threat of quotas will be enough.
  • I have seen the stats and know the gap is still too wide. Am erring on the side of quotas but am still uncomfortable with it.
  • I haven’t got a black and white view on quotas but without a material shift it is inevitable.
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