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Is now the time to stop talking and start implementing an explicit gender quota for women on boards?

As I settled into my chair last night (1 of only 2 men in a room of 100+ women – more on that later), at the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s (NWCI) event on women on boards, I was slightly anxious.

In my role as CEO of an Inclusion & Diversity advisory firm and as a passionate ally in the drive for equality, non-discrimination and inclusion of women and minority-groupings, I have

listened to many of the arguments and heard dozens of calls to action.

But I have seen little change.

I have run similar events myself, chaired panels and participated in many robust and interesting debates. The same abysmal female representation statistics are rolled out, the same business case is demonstrated and the same action plan is considered.

But I have seen little change.

Today, and it is 2017 let’s not forget, women account for only 7% of CEOs and make up only 16% of board director roles across the private sector. Why?

Maybe it’s due to unconscious bias or the overpowering male-dominated networking circuits. Maybe it’s the lack of sponsorship and development of talented women. Maybe it’s the lack of a professional, independent candidate selection process.

Whatever the reason (and there are many), maybe it’s time to stop talking about it. Maybe it’s time to stop developing a to do list that never gets done. Maybe it’s time to be brave, to be disruptive and to take real, explicit action. After all, the tagline for International Women’s Day 2017 was #beboldforchange.

Is it time to stand up in support for an explicit quota system for women on boards?

The NWCI think so. The Norwegian ambassador, Else Berit Eikeland, who spoke so eloquently last night, thinks so.

And I think so.

Yes, I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class, straight, Irish man. I know I am privileged. After all I, and millions like me, have been the beneficiary of an explicit quota system designed by men and exclusively for men that has existed for hundreds of years.

And I want that to change – not just because it is the right thing to do, nor just because it is for the benefit of women in Ireland but also because it will benefit me personally and my family.

A growing number of men in Ireland today want this to change. They want to live in a more equitable and inclusive environment. They want to work for diverse and inclusive employers. They want their children to grow up a successful, progressive and fair society.

They want more flexibility at work, more time with their loved one, more dynamic and diverse teams to work in, more inclusive leaders to follow.

What struck me last night was not that we need to support an explicit quota system, but that we need to get more men involved in this initiative and more aware of the benefits to them and to everyone around them or a more equitable and representative society.

Of course, it’s not easy. As the Norwegian ambassador explained it took one brave, forward-thinking (male, conservative) politican to say ‘enough is enough’. That was 2003. It took the business community to get behind it. That was 2005. It took the threat of de-listing or comply. It took years to reach the 40% target of women on board of public companies in Norway.

It will not be easy in Ireland either. A bill will need to be drafted and approved by Cabinet. The rules should, in my opinion, specify a time-limit similar to the 10 years applied in Norway. There can be no dumbing down of assessment criteria for selection, development or promotion. The most talented individual should still have the best chance for any role.

Crucially, men will need to become more involved. It will not work if there are only 2 in a crowd of 100+ women, like was the case last night.

So, who will step up to the plate?

Well, we have Leo. We have a smart, young, openly gay man who is leading our government. We have many other powerful, passionate and knowledgeable political leaders. An Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and her excellent Secretary General, Orlaigh Quinn spring to mind.

We also have fantastic role models and willing ambassadors in business. Anne O’Leary (CEO, Vodafone) who was excellent on the panel last night and who has made a measurable difference in her organisation is one business leader we can follow.

Let’s talk one more time on this topic, but make the conversation about designing and delivering an explicit, time-limited quota system for women on board and women across business in general.

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