The Monitor's View

The right way to put more women in boardrooms

Japan and Germany each announced goals last week to put more women in top company slots. Yet their approaches differ. And new research indicates gender qualities can't be stereotyped according to sexual differences. This suggests official bias based on sex could be misplaced.

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    German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen (L) and Chancellor Angela Merkel enter parliament in Berlin April 18, 2013. Ms. von der Leyen last week forced Chancellor Merkel to retreat on women's rights in a public showdown.
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The top leaders in two of the world’s largest economies – Japan and Germany – made a surprising turnaround last week. They each promised to push major companies toward putting more women in top corporate positions.

For tens of millions of working women, would this mean a shattering of the professed “glass ceiling”?

The answer depends very much on the different approaches in each country toward achieving gender equality in business.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel bowed to political pressure Thursday and agreed that her ruling center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, will call for a legally binding quota of 30 percent women in boardrooms starting in 2020.

Endorsing such a mandate was quite a reversal for the world’s most powerful woman, who has long opposed gender quotas.

“One learns,” Ms. Merkel told a German newspaper last week, that “not all women think alike.”

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Friday that his ruling Liberal Democratic Party would simply ask top businesses to set a target of at least one woman executive per company. His approach would be social change by moral persuasion, although consensus-making can often be rapid in Japan.

It reflects a similar approach in Britain, where an unofficial quota was set in 2011 to have 25 percent of the 100 top corporate boards be women by 2015.

Japan’s voluntary target is also quite a shift for Mr. Abe and his party, whose leaders once blamed the nation’s low birthrate on the government having allowed women to attend college. Now, as Japan struggles for new ways to revive a dormant economy, it sees an economic benefit in encouraging women’s career ambitions.

“Women are Japan’s most underused resource,” Abe said last week, as he promised subsidies for parental leave and more day-care centers.

In Europe, the effort to bring more women into the top echelons of business has been more of a numbers game. Norway has set the pace with a 40 percent quota of women on corporate boards. The European Commission hopes to impose a 33 percent quota by 2020.

But Norway has also discovered that it doesn’t have enough women qualified to be on boards. It needs to work on building up its “pipeline” of woman talent in lower management. And research studies still differ on whether having more women on corporate boards influences the bottom line of companies.

Before Merkel was forced to changed her view by Germany’s liberal parties and many within her own party, her greatest worry on behalf of women was that their high-level appointments under a quota system would diminish their reputation. “I would hate a person to ask me a question, are you a quota woman or are you a merit woman?” she once told NPR. Her view reflected a 2012 poll of 54 top woman executives in Britain that found 94 percent of them oppose gender quotas.

The different paths for Germany and Japan represent a similar debate in the United States on whether advancing women in business requires a social shift in attitude or a top-down arm-twisting by government.

A new book titled “Lean In,” by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, advises women to change their  “internal impediments” – such as not boldly asking for a raise. Other authors, such as Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, prefer that government or companies make the workplace more woman-friendly. Polls in the US show about 58 percent of people think men and women are “basically different.”

Underlying this debate is a commonly held notion that women and men are so “hard-wired” as to require special  gender-specific treatment. Yet this type of thinking has been under attack by some scholars such as Cordelia Fine of the Melbourne Business School in Australia. They say gender stereotypes are as common as a plotline on the TV show “Mad Men.” This can lead to policies that peg men and women in ways that many would find inappropriate to their individuality.

In a 2012 article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, American researchers Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis looked at 13 studies involving 13,301 individuals and concluded that “grouping into ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories indicates overlapping continuous distributions rather than natural kinds.” Gender differences, in other words, are a matter of degree. And yet society too often treats them as distinct and unchangeable.

Their article, titled “Men and Women Are From Earth,” says traits such as emotional stability, openness, and agreeableness can depend on a person’s experiences and are thus open to modification.

Such studies might argue for the softer approach in Japan, Britain, and the US in placing women in top company slots – not so much to help women but indirectly as a way of bringing more feminine qualities into business.

Adding more Venus to the Mars in the boardroom, in other words, would bring more companies down to Earth.

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