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Corporate Boards, Quotas for Women, and Political Theory

Jude Browne
Publication date: 
Tue, 17 Jun 2014

Across Europe, the question of whether quotas should be enforced for the highest ranking corporate positions as a means to addressing gender injustice is under vigorous discussion. Much of the debate has focused on the Directive drafted by the European Commission in 2012, which would place an ‘obligation of means’ on listed companies to ensure that at least 40% of non-executive directors (or 30% of all directors) of each corporate board are female by 2020.
In this policy brief, Jude Browne, Director of the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, assesses the three main objections to gender quotas on corporate boards, and seeks to overcome these objections by offering an alternative to EC policy in the form of a new proposal called the Critical Mass Marker approach.
This new approach provides a mechanism for identifying situations in which a disproportionate number of women occupy positions at a certain level within an organization and yet the natural progression one might expect to see does not materialize — where there is, in other words, a ‘thwarted critical mass’.
She argues that the Critical Mass Marker approach could prove a much more effective and proportionate response to gender imbalance in corporate boardrooms than EC policy, since it ensures that people who are equipped with the relevant skills and experience would be able to move up and across institutional structures, irrespective of characteristics such as race or sex. The effects of such a policy effort would also be felt much more widely than simply at the very top ends of organizations, instead benefiting workers across the whole of their employing institutions.
Furthermore, the Critical Mass Marker approach offers a more nuanced and flexible way to tackle segregation patterns than blanket quotas aimed only at boards, and provides a clear objective for equality which requires specific actions.