top of page
  • Writer's pictureTrish Driver

Have we reached our limit with quotas?

Updated: Feb 2, 2019

As an organisation, saying that you’re going to fix your gender balance issue by imposing quotas is like dropping a lit match in a fireworks factory – initially visually spectacular, but ultimately destructive.

Let me explain why… I’ve had a number of conversations over the last couple of years about quotas as a tool for fixing gender balance in organisations (and I’m not the only one – a recent Financial Times article describes quotas as “flawed but effective”) – whether it’s imposing quotas on short-lists for recruitment, or quotas for board membership, it’s clearly well-intentioned, and bold, but done in the wrong way, can be extremely problematic.

I’ve never had a conversation about quotas where there hasn’t been at least one person in the room visibly bristling at the term and its connotations of tokenism, and that’s really my first point. Implementing something like this, and referring to it as a quota is going to alienate almost everybody in an organisation, whether it’s those who aren’t included in the treasured “quota-ed” population feeling they’re being marginalised or phased out; or those who are being targeted being seen as or treated as tokens (or worse still – creating that niggling doubt about why they’ve been given the opportunities they have).

Clearly though, in a world where we’re aiming for nothing, we’re not going to make any progress. I’d always advise clients to think about targets instead of quotas. It’s a subtle but important semantic difference. Whereas a quota is a mandated number, a target is an aspiration to achievement – a journey rather than an immediately imposed destination. Ultimately though, it’s not as simple as just “re-branding” a quota to a target. To make a target work as a tool to change the balance in an organisation, you will need four key things:

1. Data – for organisations to understand where they need to get to, they have to understand where they currently are (and if possible, where they’ve come from). I’ve worked with organisations where the power of data has been absolutely revelatory when it comes to making a shift in approach and culture within an organisation. Accurate data stops an organisation from relying on perception and assumption, and clearly demonstrates the exact challenge.

2. Commitment – before an organisation even thinks about imposing a target to make a change, there has to be commitment and buy-in at the highest level that this is something which is crucial for the business. And with the likes of McKinsey providing data around gender balance which makes a compelling business case (stating that “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians”) this should be an easy sell, but isn’t always. This is why it’s vital that senior leaders of any gender are visibly committed to making a difference and holding themselves and others accountable if targets aren’t met.

3. Focus – As I’ve referred to in other blogs, there is no “silver bullet” fix here. If there was, it would have already been deployed. A shift in dynamics requires a shift in culture, and significant activity in numerous areas. There needs to be focus on finding the right interventions and ensuring they are deployed effectively.

4. Communication – it’s vital to be really clear as an organisation as to why this is important, what the journey looks like, and how you’re going to reach your destination. Only by doing this will you be able to take everyone in the organisation on the journey with you.

With these factors in place, sustainable cultural change is possible.

So if you want to create a long-lasting and sustainable light installation in your business, instead of a spectacular and destructive fireworks display, you might want to think about targets rather than quotas. And we can help you to design your journey – you can find more information about how on our website, or why not get in touch with us at – we’d love to hear from you.


bottom of page