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U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama gesture towards each other during the second U.S. presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, Oct. 16, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama gesture towards each other during the second U.S. presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, Oct. 16, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

Women@Work

Forget the binder, let’s just have a quota for women on boards Add to ...

The Internet is anything but forgiving and the now infamous Mitt Romney gaffe from the second U.S. presidential debate, in which the Republican candidate referred to “binders full of women,” provided endless fodder for the social media set.

I must admit to spending time scanning the endless comments making fun of how Mr. Romney said that as governor of Massachusetts, he sought qualified women for cabinet posts by looking through “binders full of women” put together by women’s groups. It provided some darkly comic relief in a race in which women’s issues – from pay equity to abortion – are part of the agenda.

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But now that we’ve all had a good laugh and creatively expressed our indignation, it’s time to move past Mr. Romney’s poorly worded defence of how he advocated for women before the the underlying issue is forgotten: How can we move past our reliance on “binders?”

Many businesses say they struggle to find qualified women or other diverse candidates for senior leadership roles. After all the years of proving the business case for diversity, and despite the strides women have made in business, the sentiment still persists that there are not enough qualified female candidates to fit top roles. This is the cue for a list – or binder, to borrow a Romneyism – of women’s résumés to make its appearance.

“The one benefit to the ‘binders of names’ is that it challenges the perception that there are no qualified and experienced women able to do the senior roles, be that in the C-suite or on the board [of directors],” said Charlotte Sweeney, founder of Charlotte Sweeney Associates Ltd., in West Yorkshire, England. Her consulting firm helps companies change their culture to promote diversity.

Ms. Sweeney, previously the head of diversity and inclusion at financial services firm Nomura International, said companies want to hire more women, and many recruiting firms say they are bringing more diverse candidates to the table. However, there still seems to be a significant number of high-calibre female candidates looking for the right opportunities, Ms. Sweeney said. The solution lies in changing corporate culture, but that takes time.

One approach to quickly changing corporate culture is to use quotas. The mere mention of quotas can whip many North American executives into a frenzy, but the impact on business culture can be dramatic.

Consider Norway, which led the way in quotas. Before 2002, when the law mandating quota on corporate boards was proposed, the number of women on boards of publicly traded Norwegian companies was about 5 per cent. That skyrocketed to 40 per cent in 2008 and, the change spurred a profound impact in business culture, according to Morten Huse, a professor of organization and management at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo.

In his research, Dr. Huse found that only a few years after the quota law took effect, the old boys’ network had been replaced by two other groups he dubbed the “golden skirts” and “gold sacks.”

The golden skirts represent professional women who making a living from being independent members of multiple boards; the multiboard men are “gold sacks” who represent independent investors that are not part of the old boys’ club, Dr. Huse said.

“The golden skirts do not constitute a network. Interlocking directorates hardly exist between them, and the women hardly meet outside the boards,” he said. “The multiboard members today are the golden skirts and gold sacks, and the old boys’ network is not very visible any more on corporate boards.”

Because it is a common criterion to expect previous board experience, the golden skirts are now being exported to other countries in need of female candidates, Dr. Huse said. In Norway, it has become a “reputation-building initiative to have women on boards,” he added.

Dr. Huse sees many positive signs as a result of the law, such as an added focus on the competencies and qualifications of members. But he believes it will take a few years before concluding the effectiveness of the business case.

Admittedly, quotas are a hard sell, in North America and abroad. This week, a European Union initiative to legislate a quota for corporate boards to include women as 40 per cent of their members was postponed until November, and will likely be watered down. That prompted EU commissioner for justice, Viviane Reding, who pushed the initiative, to tweet: “I will not give up.”

Quotas strike many as an unpalatable option that smacks of tokenism, and insinuates promoting those without merit. That sentiment isn’t a far cry from the current, voluntary option – the “binders full of women.” That taint of tokenism, regardless of a company’s approach, will not fade until business culture has evolved.

As Ms. Sweeney says, businesswoman Sheelah Whittaker’s quote: “We’ll know we have equality when we have as many incompetent women in senior positions as we have men,” is still appropriate. To get there, we need a better option than binders.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed a quote to Charlotte Sweeney instead of to businesswoman Sheelagh Whittaker who originally spoke it. This online version has been corrected.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: leah.eichler@femme-o-nomics.com

Follow on Twitter: @LeahEichler

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