Australia tackles the thorny question of quotas

As I mentioned briefly yesterday, the question of whether to introduce quotas to speed gender parity in corporate Australia has been in the news of late.

Governor General Quentin Bryce, a long-time advocate for gender equality, said on Tuesday that she was in favour of instituting quotas in order to ensure that enough women were serving on corporate boards. Opposition Treasurer Joe Hockey has also come out in favour of a quota system, though he insists that quotas should be a last resort. On Monday, Hockey voiced the belief that corporate Australia, when left to institute its own gender equity policies, has dragged its feet, and called for real action. “Corporate Australia has had so many warnings, they’ve put in place so many programs … but Australia has actually fallen behind,” Hockey said. “I just don’t understand how you can claim that as a director of a company, that all wisdom and knowledge lies in the hands of men only.”

And the numbers on women in corporate leadership in Australia certainly are grim. According to the Sydney Morning Herald,

Last year, women made up just 3 per cent of chief executives of the top 200 companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, and 8.4 per cent of board members. More than 100 of the top 200 companies had no women on their boards.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, infamous for expressing less-than-feminist views, doesn’t support quotas at all. “I think if women are given the chance to show their abilities they will get places on their merits,”Abbott said. “I think women can and should succeed on their merits and I think if we give them more opportunities to show their merits we’ll see more success.” Which is all well and good, but as Hockey points out, corporate Australia seems reluctant to give women those opportunities. Corporate quotas would do exactly that. Abbott, speaking at a girls’ high school on the occasion of International Women’s Day, did at least concede that an increase in the number of women on boards would benefit individual companies and the economy as a whole.

There are some powerful players voicing opinions on both sides. Gail Kelly, who is chief of the Australian bank Westpac and was recently named by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s most powerful women, doesn’t support quotas for private companies. According to the SMH, Kelly would “like to see organizations left alone to make their own targets, rather than be forced by law.”

The Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, has committed the Australian government to a 40% quota for public board positions, a proportion she hopes to reach by 2015.

But the most powerful woman of all, Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, views quotas as a very last resort. Speaking in Washington, D.C. yesterday, sharing a stage with Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, Gillard suggested that while she was a strong supporter of the government’s 40% goal, she was reluctant, for now, to force a quota on private companies. “I believe men and women are born with equal capacities and so if you see an area of life like boards in corporate Australia where we disproportionately see men and not a sufficient representation of women, that is not a merits-based decision,” Gillard said.

The issue of quotas is as thorny in Australia as it is in the States, and it’s unsurprising that these powerful players find themselves divided by the problem. Question of merit, fairness and equality arise when you’re talking about quotas, as well as broader questions about the speed of cultural and social change. It remains to be seen how this particular discussion will shake out, but if I had to put money on it, I’d warn those in favour of quotas not to get their hopes up. That said, this discussion is sure to continue in the next few weeks – with any luck, something productive will come of it.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Dan L

    Does anyone know a good in depth report on board turnovers at that level (fortune 500 in the US, the top 200 referenced in this piece, etc)? How often to board positions realistically come up for grabs? My very limited experience is that most people end up on boards and then just sit there for years/decades. I’d be curious of say a 5 year study of how many positions became available and a breakdown of who got them, versus a “10,000 foot view” of the situation saying private industry has failed because things haven’t equalized yet.

  • Matt

    I personally do not like quotas, but I could envision an attitude like the opposition’s Treasury. To avoid that last resort, though, other measures that work hard to emphasize merit should be considered. If women and minorities are hired/promoted at disproportionately low rates, the implicated corporations must demonstrate their hiring methods did not use adverse treatment — with an appropriate burden of proof falling to the corporation (something the US does… sort of). To Dan’s point of positions not becoming available often (which leads to underrepresentation dragging out for a long time), it may be necessary to require large businesses to limit term-length for high-level positions — a person can be rehired for the position, but the person must compete against other interested candidates, and the hiring decision must be made by people who would not be susceptible to collusion. And when discrimination/abuse/violation occurs, the corporations must (at a minimum) pay large fines in addition to any damages (while also proportional to the severity and status involved). The legal environment needs to be so hostile to discrimination that few businesses would find the risk worthwhile but without destroying a company with sound fundamentals and yet has a few bad apples.