Gender quotas at the highest levels: a quick fix working the wrong end of the pipeline

You might expect that as one of the few female Chief Executives in the global mining industry, I would advocate strongly for gender-specific targets or quotas. I don’t. After decades of lived experiences and a lot of thought, I find myself squarely on the other side of this debate.

When it comes to gender diversity in the mining industry, very little has changed. Across Canada’s largest publicly traded companies, there are more male CEOs named Michael than there are female CEOs. In the UK, almost 90% of women still work for companies that pay them less than male colleagues. And in Mexico, where my company operates, 31% of women under the age of 24 are neither in school nor working, compared to only 9% of men in that age category.

How do we pass this daunting disparity on to the next generation?

More than half of the battle in solving complex problems is the framing. In this case, the corporate world has the frame and approach dead wrong.

Complex, generational issues are never effectively solved through singular solutions. The enthusiasm to make things better by applying quotas at the most senior levels of organizations is a quick fix working the wrong end of the pipeline. Quotas imply that women get a reserved spot at the table. I want to be at the table because I earned it and because I’m the best person for the job, not to fill a quota. Inevitably, quotas will see some women ascend to positions of power before they are ready which has the potential to move women backward.

In the mining industry, the paradox of decades of sexism is the elevated quality of female leadership. For a woman to ascend to a leadership position, she had to be better to get the job. In part, the solution to achieving gender diversity isn’t to lower the bar so less capable women get there. It’s about raising the bar and making it harder – much harder – for less capable men to get the job.

So how do we move forward if quotas are not the answer?

For one, companies need to stop hiring from ‘the club’. If women are given an equal opportunity to be considered for board and executive positions, and hiring is done on the basis of competence and capability instead of connections and ‘confidence’, sometimes the best person for the job will be a man, sometimes a woman.

In addition, there must be a real and concerted effort to build a female pipeline at a variety of entry level leadership positions, with meaningful mentorship and allyship programs along the way. And not just in traditionally female functions such as HR and communications – we need to see more women in operational roles – roles that touch the metal and the money. This will create a pool over time that sees women ascending to positions of power when they are ready for them.

And finally, women have a role to play in applying for jobs that may seem ‘bigger’ than them. Research shows that men are much more inclined to apply for jobs that are beyond their level of comfort or knowledge than their female counterparts. Women must work to find the confidence to push ourselves beyond what we think we can do. Women must also support other women – this is an area where I have witnessed the most progress. I proudly stand on the shoulders of the women who blazed a path before me, and I will gladly brace for the next generation to climb up on my shoulders – it is a duty and an honour.

A multi-faceted approach will no doubt take longer than quotas, but quick fixes are not the solution and can have serious unintended consequences. Let’s have women and men work together to create the pipeline of the next generation of female leaders. The work will be harder and take longer, but I expect the view will be worth the climb.

Article as seen in Reuters Foundation: I’m a top female mining exec opposed to gender quotas. Here’s why.