Quotas On The Way for EU Employers: Is the U.S. Next?

Last Updated Oct 6, 2010 7:34 AM EDT

Nine years ago, the German business community promised to more more women to top spots. That hasn't happened. Only 2.5 percent of the boards of Germany's top 200 companies are women. Across the European Union, things are only a little better, with women occupying 11% of board seats at companies listed on stock markets.

The EU Commissioner for Equal Opportunities is fed up, and she says that if things don't change pronto she is going to make them do it by slapping them with a quota. The boards would have to be 30% women by next year. (That 30%, by the way, is not a random number. Numerous academic studies confirm that 30% is the tipping point at which women are not viewed as tokens, but fully participate in board and executive committee dynamics.)

Corporate leaders are surprisingly passive. Ok, maybe it's not so surprising. They couldn't meet their self-imposed goals so they're going to get on the commissioner's train and let her drag them there.

U.S. companies are doing a tiny bit better. Women hold 15.2% of board seats here, reports Catalyst. That is not much to brag about. If the EU commissioner makes good on her threat, and if quotas work, will the U.S. be next?

Not likely, says Sylvia Maxfield, associate professor at the Simmons College School of Management. Europeans might take it - Asians, too - but in the U.S., quotas are not gonna fly. Companies in Europe and Asia are much more accustomed to government directives. Quotas are already in place in Norway and underway in Spain and the Netherlands, she says.

But U.S. companies can claim that the carrot of social stigma is more compelling than the stick of government force. After all, we have that four-percentage-point lead!

"The usual argument against quotas is that you'll get unqualified people," Maxfield told me in a recent interview. The truth is, there are plenty of qualified women who'd love to be on boards. Maxfield cited a Simmons survey that found many women who've proven their chops by serving on nonprofit boards. And numerous local advocacy groups, such as the InterOrganization Network have long been advocating for women on the boards of local companies. These organizations also provide training and referral services for companies and headhunters who look and look and look but just can't find any qualified women!

There are qualified women. Nominating committees are just not looking in the right places. If quotas make a big, dramatic difference at European companies, pressure will ratchet up on U.S. companies to prove that their methods of diversifying boards and executive ranks is easier. Maybe a European push will spill into a U.S. shove.

Image courtesy of Morguefile user mconners.