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The Golden Skirts

cartoon from "The New Yorker"

We often hear about the “glass ceiling” and, in spite of it, how far women in the developed world have come. We almost had our first female president, have numerous female CEOs and, on a daily basis, see women in positions of power in almost every industry. However, as any feminist will tell you, we have a long way to go. In the business world, Europe  deals with this issue differently than the rest of the world.

For better or worse, some European countries have begun mandating quotas for the number of female seats on publicly-owned companies’ boards of directors. In 2002, Norway passed legislation requiring state-owned and publicly listed companies to have women in 40% of board seats by 2008. Since 2002, Spain and the Netherlands have passed similar laws. Similar legislation is under consideration in Belgium, Britain, Germany, France and Sweden. In Norway, qualified female business leaders, in high-demand on company boards, have been nicknamed  “the Golden Skirts.”

The U.S., where on average, 15% of board members of Fortune 500 companies are women, still ranks higher than its Asian counterparts, with only 5% of female seat-holders in China and India, and 1.4% in Japan. Besides slowly-changing cultural norms and societal gender roles, there are two commonly cited reasons for the lack of women advancing into high-level executive positions:

– disruptions in career path due to family time & maternity leave

– too many women going into functional roles (i.e. accounting, human resources) instead of profit-driving areas

Although I sometimes favor quotas in legislative bodies, I believe this solution is inappropriate for the business world. These quotas not only don’t reach the root of the problem, but can actually cause more harm than good. Instead of filling these seats with potentially unqualified, inexperienced businesswomen (which would actually hurt the argument that a more equitable gender divide is good for a company), we must work to get women into these seats on merit alone. Companies should instruct management to identify high-achieving female employees earlier in their careers and direct them into leadership training, managerial paths, and/or profit driving sectors. It is better to see real results and progress in a decade than false progress now. Real progress and achievement- we deserve no less.

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