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December 8 2014

A Better Path to Helping Women Succeed

Carrie L. Lukas

Germany will be introducing corporate boardroom quotas in hopes of increasing women's representation at the top and changing the culture to help more women succeed. But as I write in an oped for the New York Times, this is unlikely to actually improve women's prospects. Evidence from other corporate quotas (such as the quota in Norway) shows that it has little positive effect. And I argue that worse than a waste of time, the quota could hurt women: It sends the message that those women who do reach the top are there because corporations need to meet a quota, not because they deserve it.  

Due to space constraints, in that piece, I couldn't get into the topic of possible reasons why there are few female corporate leaders in Germany, and better ways to increase the likelihood that women will reach the top.

Ironically, some of the other initiatives that the Germany government has taken in the name of helping women may actually be backfiring in terms of increasing female board representation. Germany requires companies to allow unpaid leave for up to three years after a birth of a child and to make accommodations for part-time work during that time period. The German government also offers parents myriad subsidies, from government-supported daycare centers to cash payments for those choosing to keep children at home.

These policies work in different directions when it comes to women's labor force participation – some policies make it easier for women to go back to work while others make work less necessary. However, taken together, the policies certainly send the message that parents of young children are unlikely to be normal, reliable, full-time workers. Employers have to assume that parents are likely to opt for part-time work, if not disappear entirely, for a couple of years. This gives businesses much reason to hesitate before giving someone likely to become a parents a position with serious responsibilities that cannot be easily transferred to a temp.

Of course, I write “parents of young children” because both men and women are eligible to utilize leave time. But unsurprisingly, mothers are far more likely to use leave benefits, particularly extended leave benefits, than fathers are. We can debate why this is, and if society can and should try to change it, but for now, it is a simple reality and employers all know this. This means that when human resource managers consider a 30 year old man and a 30 year old woman for a management position, they know that there is a good chance that the woman will disappear for years at a time, while it is far less likely that the man will do so. How do you think this impacts hiring and promotion decisions? I'm sure legally they are not supposed to take those potentials into consideration, but it is impossible for them not to be aware of these differences and certainly they are likely to weigh into their determinations. 

In the United States, there is no law that requires an employer to hold a job for a woman for years at a time. Most feminists see that as a bad thing, but it means that U.S. employers take far less of a risk when hiring a woman than a German business does. That is likely one reason why American women are far more likely to be represented at the tops of company than in other Western countries with generous family leave benefits. ( For example, the OECD found that women account for more than 40 percents of senior managers in the United States compared to just 30 percent in Germany)

Rather than set asides for women in top positions, policymakers who really want to see more women succeed in business should role back regulations that require businesses to make such generous allowance for parents. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this will lead to far more economic opportunity for women and will allow companies and employees to figure out arrangements that make sense to both parties when there is a need for leave. Real equality won't come from government micromanaging but from giving women more opportunity to succeed on their own, and more reason for companies to want to hire them.


Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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