When prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau announces his cabinet next week, half of its members will be women. That's the promise he made on the campaign trail, one of his pledges to bring "real change" to Ottawa.
The prospect spurred some predictable bleating about subsuming meritocracy in favour of political correctness. This complaint is both boring and wrong. Female Liberal MPs are experienced and skilled; some are veteran politicians (a former mayor, previous cabinet members), others are enthusiastic newcomers with varied backgrounds (lawyers, entrepreneurs and nurses). Let's move on.
Mr. Trudeau's goal, while respectable, isn't groundbreaking, and is already the case in some provincial cabinets. Getting more women around important tables has been a political and corporate mantra for some time. By next year, supervisory boards at public companies in Germany must be at least 30 per cent women, following similar moves enacted by France, Spain and the Netherlands.
Last year, a group of business leaders launched a Canadian chapter of the 30% Club, a global organization that pushes for more women in senior corporate roles (the Canadian chapter includes Globe and Mail publisher Phillip Crawley). And the Ontario Securities Commission requires every company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange to report the number of women on its board and executive, making Alberta, British Columbia and Yukon the only Canadian jurisdictions not tracking the gender makeup of corporate boards.
Fairness, if you care about that, is one good reason to make such a move, but there are others. It has been shown that diversity at the top tends to give an organization better morale, lower turnover and greater profits. Yet, while these benefits all come from "diversity" broadly defined – diversity of ethnicity, class, ability and so on – official policies about achieving diversity tend to focus on "women," full stop.
The reason for this is somewhat obvious – women are easily identifiable and a solid half of the population. Setting a target is fairly simple. It's more difficult to identify people with, say, certain disabilities or non-hetero sexualities without asking outright during job interviews, which is problematic in its own way.
It's also difficult to set a target for other marginalized groups based on their representation in society as a whole. By 2031, almost a third of Canadians will be visible minorities, Statistics Canada has estimated; would fairness mean that around any given powerful table, 30 per cent of participants must be people of colour? Or would it require greater specificity, tracking each ethnicity's numbers in the population as a whole?
These questions are uncomfortable and complicated. They also need to be asked. Diversity is said to help organizations sidestep group think, allowing nimbleness in the face of sticky problems or deep ruts. But, just because a group has a decent number of women, that doesn't mean it's all that diverse. I'm happy that Mr. Trudeau and others are committed to gender equality, but I hope this will include the equality of women beyond those who are well-off, well-educated and already run in influential circles.
So some advice for anyone looking to shake up the mix of faces around the table: Slapping on a shiny "50-per-cent women!" sticker isn't that ambitious. If what you want is fairness, stability and exciting new ideas, make sure that your diversity goals do more than help relatively successful women achieve a little bit more, a little bit faster.