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Quota systems will not lead to genuine transformation for women

A successful male leader said to me recently that he had been an outsider since an early age and that this "made me work harder, smarter and made me hungrier about becoming an insider".

The Canadian Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in 2008 in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, noting, "there are times when being an outsider is precisely what makes you a good insider", and that this was particularly true of minorities.

Women are the world’s largest "minority". While making up 52% of the population here in SA, when it comes to representation they can be considered outsiders on a vast, gender-based scale.

The withdrawal of the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill last year was an excellent and perceptive move by Minister of Women in the Presidency Susan Shabangu.

Business leaders were quite right to strongly oppose the bill as they would have been paying the price of its many flaws. With its emphasis on numerically equal representation and with the threat of fines and even imprisonment if numbers were not met by a certain date, the bill was not only punitive and counterproductive, it was potentially irreversibly damaging to women.

Quota systems do not work. They have not worked anywhere in the world and they will not work here. Legislating what is essentially a numbers game will see a simple tick-box response, which is nothing like genuine representation.

Such a bill will set women up to fail. Women will be offered jobs they will feel obliged to take. (How grateful they will be for the opportunity.) But one that they may not be ready for? This will result in a particularly unattractive double-whammy: the women will feel out of their depth and incompetent and, if they fail, others will play the "I told you so" card or point out that "this is what happens when you put a woman in the job".

Genuine transformation for women, irrespective of colour or class, is about owning their ambition. It is about having the right to make decisions about their lives and themselves first, before they feel compelled to make decisions in the workplace, especially if forced on them by an unrealistic and simple quota system.
If a woman is comfortable at a middle-management level, she needs to know that staying there and being the best middle manager she can be is right for her and is her choice...

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Opinion piece by Shireen Chengadu - Executive Director, GIBS Centre for Leadership and Dialogue

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