“A gender quota is not enough”

Policy and business approach needed

December 16 2021

A holistic approach is needed to achieve gender equality and more women at the top of business in the Netherlands. Both government action in the form of legislation, and changes within organizations are needed to make this happen. This is the main conclusion of the research conducted by Rosalien van ’t Foort-Diepeveen, who defends her PhD dissertation and will be awarded the title of doctor at Nyenrode Business University today. On 1 January 2022, the gender quota will come into effect in the Netherlands. From then on, listed companies will be required to have at least one-third of their supervisory boards comprised of women. “A quota is necessary, but a quota mainly changes the number of women, and do not the change attitudes or processes,” said Van ’t Foort-Diepeveen.

“It is often said that more women at the top will lead to good business performance or better decision-making. As far as I’m concerned, it goes further. Having women at the corporate top is a must when you consider human rights and international conventions. Men and women must have equal opportunities. In this respect, the Netherlands is a laggard,” Van ’t Foort-Diepeveen points out.

Her research shows that there are seven barriers that impede the advancement of women to the top. The most persistent barrier, which is also related to almost all the other barriers, is gender stereotyping. “Think, for example, of how specific traits are assigned to men, such as dominance and assertiveness, while females are assigned traits such as being kind and helpful. Research shows that this stereotyping negatively affects the assessment of women as good leaders, and consequently, women are less likely to be selected.”

Breaking barriers?

Other barriers that women face include devaluation of women, a masculine organizational culture, work-family balance, bias in recruitment and promotion, lack of mentors, role models and networks for women, and the phenomenon of the ‘leaky pipeline’. In her research, Van ’t Foort-Diepeveen shows that the barriers are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. This makes it complicated to overcome them. “Therefore, several interventions are needed to make a change.”

The researched particular interventions to remove existing barriers. To this end, she studied, among other things, organizational interventions implemented by four large Dutch companies. Examples of organizational interventions include training to eliminate unconscious biases, mentoring programs, (female) development programs, and setting specific diversity targets for the percentage of female leaders.

Prerequisite for success

But having only organizational interventions is not enough. When companies themselves develop specific interventions, commitment from the top is a crucial prerequisite for success: “The board has, has to believe in it, act upon it and also has to promote it by measuring, evaluating and communicating it,” says Van ’t Foort-Diepeveen.

On the other hand, it is necessary to force change through legislation. One way is through imposing gender quota on companies. “You can see that this has been successfully applied in Belgium since 2011. There, most listed companies succeed in having at least one-third of their boards made up of women.”

Flywheel effect

The results of this PhD research provide new insights into ways to overcome barriers and to achieve gender equality at the top of Dutch companies. Van ’t Foort-Diepeveen shows that a quota alone is not enough. “Also,” she says, “the quota in the Netherlands will only apply to women on the supervisory boards of listed companies. It affects only a small group. Therefore, the quota should also apply to the management board and to multiple companies in order to bring about real change. I hope this creates a flywheel effect.”

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