Role Models: Can Quotas Help Get More Women into Leadership?

By Iliana Garner, Philipp Rieß, and Thora-Marit Bilz

Pho­to Cred­it: “Board­room” by Evening_T/Getty Images

Women rep­re­sen­ta­tion on cor­po­rate boards remains a prob­lem in many coun­tries around the world. Yet the intro­duc­tion of quo­tas to address this issue has caused debates among cur­rent and future leaders.

Nor­way was the first coun­try to intro­duce bind­ing quo­tas for women on cor­po­rate boards back in 2003, and the ini­tia­tive has been suc­cess­ful. But the recent pas­sage of a law to enforce the women’s quo­ta in Ger­many, after ear­li­er efforts didn’t seem to lead to the intend­ed con­se­quences, has reignit­ed debate about the pros and cons of quo­tas for women in the U.S. and Europe alike. “When women are not rep­re­sent­ed at the lead­er­ship table, then it’s hard for women to be rep­re­sent­ed as con­sumers of your brands,” says Robin Vogel, 56, vice pres­i­dent of glob­al strate­gic sourc­ing at the Amer­i­can can­dy com­pa­ny Mars, Inc. Hav­ing majored in engi­neer­ing at col­lege, Vogel knows first-hand how under­rep­re­sent­ed women are in cer­tain fields. But through­out her career, she just pushed on. “Walk­ing into a meet­ing room where the major­i­ty of the atten­dees are men may have impacts on a num­ber of women,” she admits. “Frankly, I got used to it.”

Since 2015, every com­pa­ny that is list­ed on the Ger­man stock exchange must fill at least 30% of its super­vi­so­ry board seats with women. Com­pa­nies that don’t reach this goal have to give every seat that frees up to a woman. Right now, 100 com­pa­nies in Ger­many are affect­ed by the quo­ta. And 3,500 more are oblig­ed to pro­vide data on how many women they plan to add to their boards. The per­cent­age of women on super­vi­so­ry boards at these list­ed com­pa­nies has risen to 35.4% from just 25% back in 2015, accord­ing to Germany’s fed­er­al min­istry for fam­i­ly affairs, senior cit­i­zens, women and youth. But pri­vate­ly held com­pa­nies, which didn’t need to make changes back in 2015, have hard­ly changed their board com­po­si­tion at all. The vast major­i­ty of com­pa­nies – 1,695 com­pa­nies, rep­re­sent­ing rough­ly 81% – did not have any women on their boards in the last five years, accord­ing to min­istry data. More than 78% of the com­pa­nies stat­ed that they didn’t estab­lish a fixed num­ber of women on their boards at all or didn’t give any seat to a woman. That’s why, as of August 2021, all pub­licly trad­ed Ger­man com­pa­nies with four or more board mem­bers must have at least one woman on their man­age­ment boards as well. These new bind­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions are sup­posed to strength­en the women’s quo­ta in Ger­many and to oblige com­pa­nies to appoint women to man­age­ment roles.

After 16 years in office, Angela Merkel, the first-ever female chan­cel­lor of Ger­many, is leav­ing office after Ger­man nation­al elec­tions in Sep­tem­ber. This new law, which is sup­posed to help women get into lead­er­ship roles, was one of Merkel’s final push­es while in office. Nine oth­er coun­tries have women’s quo­tas right now, and all of them are Euro­pean. Nor­way was the first coun­try to ini­ti­ate a quo­ta almost 20 years ago, fol­lowed by Ice­land, Aus­tria, Greece and Spain. For Nor­way, the quo­ta has worked well. About 41% of all lead­ing posi­tions in busi­ness were filled by women in Nor­way 2019, accord­ing to Springer Pro­fes­sion­al, a dig­i­tal library.

The Unit­ed States may offer valu­able lessons on alter­na­tive approach­es to quo­tas. Only the state of Cal­i­for­nia has estab­lished a women’s quo­ta for big com­pa­nies with more than five peo­ple sit­ting on the super­vi­so­ry board. Dar­i­on Akins, Con­sul Gen­er­al of the Unit­ed States for north­ern Ger­many, says gen­der quo­tas can do a lot of good if imple­ment­ed well, while improp­er­ly imple­ment­ed ones might do more harm than good.

“The approach with gen­der quo­tas in the U.S. is slight­ly dif­fer­ent” than in Europe, Akins explains. Unlike Ger­many, the U.S. doesn’t reg­u­late the over­all per­cent­age of women at the top of com­pa­nies. Instead, U.S.-based com­pa­nies tend to empha­size the indi­vid­ual. “When a com­pa­ny hires some­one, we should look if the indi­vid­ual is qual­i­fied for this job,” Akins explains. “These peo­ple do not nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be women. We must judge peo­ple for their qual­i­fi­ca­tions, tal­ents, and capa­bil­i­ties, not their gen­der.” A sup­port­ive cor­po­rate atmos­phere, also amongst col­leagues, is just as impor­tant for the advance­ment of tal­ent. “Peo­ple should advo­cate each other’s tal­ents,” Akins says. “In order to fos­ter women’s posi­tions in com­pa­nies, a lot more men should be proac­tive and sup­port women on their way up in their careers.”

If there were more of a dynam­ic in soci­ety encour­ag­ing women to strive for posi­tions of pow­er, it might be pos­si­ble to strength­en women’s con­fi­dence to strive for lead­er­ship roles with­out the need for gen­der quo­tas. And that is pre­cise­ly what con­cerns Vogel, the Mars exec­u­tive. “What I wor­ry about is women get­ting pro­mot­ed [and becom­ing] the token woman,” Vogel says of quo­tas. “I do believe in set­ting goals for what you want … but I think there’s more that can be done.”

That’s why she stress­es the impor­tance of men­tor­ship to encour­age women to reach the high­est lead­er­ship lev­els. U.S. com­pa­nies, includ­ing Mars, pro­vide Asso­ciate Resource Groups (ARG) to sup­port women and oth­er under­rep­re­sent­ed groups. Vogel says she taps this group to men­tor younger women. One aim of the women’s quo­ta in Ger­many is to encour­age girls still in their teens to strive for lead­ing posi­tions in the future. While many adults share the con­cerns voiced by Vogel and Akins, more than 80% of female stu­dents and more than 60% of male stu­dents at Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties are opti­mistic about the future effects of the women’s quo­ta, accord­ing to a 2021 sur­vey by Maas­tricht Uni­ver­si­ty and the online job board Stu­ditemps. “The only thing I’m afraid of is that I might be seen as the ‘quo­ta woman’,” says Laeti­tia Kitch­ing, a 17-year-old stu­dent at Johan­neum, a high school in Ham­burg, Ger­many. “You always hear about it in the­o­ry, but I’ve nev­er spo­ken to some­one who has had actu­al expe­ri­ences with the women’s quota.”

Address­ing women on both sides of the Atlantic who want to achieve high lead­er­ship posts, Vogel gives three straight­for­ward pieces of advice: “Have con­fi­dence in your tal­ents. Know what you want and seek it,” she says. “And last­ly, don’t strive for perfection.”

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Philipp Rieß, 16, was born and raised in Chapel Hill, North Car­oli­na. He moved to Ham­burg in 2011. He attends Gym­na­si­um Groot­moor and serves on the Youth Advi­so­ry Coun­cil of the Con­sul Gen­er­al of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca in Ham­burg. In his free time, he plays piano and sax­o­phone and is an avid Alpine sportsman.

Tho­ra Mar­it Bilz, 17, will grad­u­ate from high school in Ham­burg in sum­mer 2022. In her free time, she plays the flute and is a horse­back rid­er. She’s strong­ly inter­est­ed in gen­der pol­i­tics and history.

Iliana Gar­ner is a stu­dent jour­nal­ist from Chica­go and edi­tor-in-chief of her school news­pa­per. Her writ­ing has appeared in The Stan­ford Dai­ly and Ms. Mag­a­zine. Her dream is to write for The New York­er.