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Gender Diversity in Leadership - Is a Gender Quota a Good Thing?

I'm a certified Professional Coach (AIPC) and a member of the International Coach Federation. I coach for career and creativity.


No one disagrees there are more men than women in leadership positions but not everyone agrees the way to redress this imbalance is by defining a quota of females vs males. Some would argue that a forced quota would pass up hiring the best person for the job in favour of hiring someone based upon gender alone. Disregarding a quota as nothing more than a numbers game ignores the researched benefits of having more females in leadership positions.

A study by Katherine Coffman, Christine Exley, and Muriel Niederle of the Harvard Business School examined whether general societal beliefs regarding female competence influences employers to favour hiring male applicants.

Coffman and her colleagues enrolled 100 applicants for a series of 6 tests on sports and math. The test scores together with the applicants’ date of birth and gender were used to test employer hiring behaviour. All tests used an equal ratio of male to female applicants.

Employers chose only 43% of female applicants despite having higher scores than their male counterparts

Their first test provided employers with the test score and gender of each applicant and was devised to ensure all female applicant test scores were marginally higher than their male counterparts’. The result was employers chose only 43% of female applicants despite their higher scores, highlighting gender discrimination in the hiring process.

The second test provided female applicant test scores that were lower than male applicants’ scores but did not allow the employer to know an applicant’s gender. On this occasion employers chose only 37% of female applicants. "In other words, employers in both treatments discriminate against workers associated with the lower-performing group, consistent with beliefs [of female competence] driving discrimination against women... " (Coffman, Exley & Niederle 2017).

Their conclusion is echoed by Organisational Psychologist and author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who, in his article "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?" states: “The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women.” (Chamorro-Premuzic 2013). Furthermore, research suggests that “groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women.” And he emphasises that these traits are the proven opposite of what is needed for effective and successful leadership (Chamorro-Premuzic 2013).

Societal beliefs of female competence have been bolstered by the news media sensationalising popular scientific studies proving male superiority over female. In Carol Tavris's book The Mismeasure of Woman, she convincingly argues that scientists themselves are not objectively free from the persuasion of such societal beliefs and this can affect the way they design tests and interpret outcomes. She posits that the many studies proving male superiority have from the outset used the male psyche and physiology as the standard measure of all that is normal and then looked for points of female divergence to demonstrate abnormality or inferiority. The result is differences that may prove advantageous for both females and society are overlooked or shunned and never capitalised on.

There is evidence that organisations using quotas to balance female-to-male leadership ratios receive many more benefits than those who don't

There is evidence that organisations using quotas to balance female to male leadership ratios receive many more benefits than those who don't. Joe Carella, Assistant Dean of the University of Arizona, Eller College of Management, when asked if he could reduce high staff turnover of a US company, promoted two senior female executives onto their board which hitherto consisted entirely of men. The result was turnover rates dropped and the company became more transparent, a result that is supported by the Peterson Institute's discovery that "Having senior female leaders creates less gender discrimination in recruitment, promotion and retention... " (Blumberg 2018). What's more Susi Billingsley of "Cultura Lavoro s.r.l", Italy, during the European Institute of Gender Equality's (EIGE 2014) “Benefits of Gender Equality” online discussion indicated that in relation to an economic case for gender equality "... [Credit Suisse] finds that companies with one or more women on the board have delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing, better average growth and higher price/book value multiples over the course of the last 6 years (from 2005 to 2012)."

Chamorro-Premuzic (2013) writes: “Normative data, which includes thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40 countries, shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women.” This was certainly the conclusion as to how the Icelandic financial crash of 2008 eventuated from a coterie of males eagerly engaging in hubris and financial risk-taking.

After the crash Icelandic women took to the helm of the Viking langskip (war ship) to clean up the mess created by their men. Halla Tomasdottir during her talk “A feminine Response to Iceland's Financial Crash” said “It is not about women being better than men, it is actually about women being different from men, bringing different values and different ways to the table. So, what do you get? You get better decision-making and you get less herd behaviour and both of those things hit your bottom line with very positive results.” (TED Talks 2010).

Tomasdottir’s comment highlights the sociological differences between men and women and how organisations should exploit these differences in values and behaviours at the leadership level to positively improve their company culture and profitability. Unfortunately, there are also many calls asking women to act more like men to improve their chances of career progression within the current business environment. In an article titled “Women, It’s Time to Be Less Humble” author Preethi discusses her decision to actively remove humility from her professional life, “I remember drafting mails, and then consciously removing my ‘humility’ sentences. I started doing this when I realized that many men were constantly ‘selling’ their qualities wherever possible.” (Preethi 2011). Humility, that ability to not overestimate oneself, is crowded out by a noisy culture of ego and self-promotion. As Lao Tzu wrote in the great Taoist work “Tao Te Ching” “Those who know don’t speak. Those who speak don’t know.” (Mitchell 1988). Those same qualities we admire in great spiritual leaders—modesty, fairness, justness, humility, sensibleness, ability to listen to counsel—seem to be the same qualities we inculcate in females within many societies yet abandon as criteria for leadership roles within business. Yet these same qualities have been proven to improve business and society.

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From my experience working alongside female leaders and observing female interactions in contrast to those of males I believe that a majority of women provide fairer and more balanced leadership due to having less investment in ego, less herd-like behaviours, and more cooperation to achieve an objective. I’ve seen strong responses from female leaders that show they know when to be tough but it has always felt justified as opposed to bullying or bravado.

Addressing the imbalance of leadership between males and females is a global challenge

Addressing the imbalance of leadership between males and females is a global challenge as women make up 49 percent of the world's population as of 2016 (IndexMundi 2018). It is an issue whose resolution can bring positive benefits to the entire planet across all fields of human endeavour and society. Priya Alvarez (EIGE 2014) asserts "When it comes to entrepreneurship or new initiatives, limiting talent to that of men is just that: limited talent. There can be so many more good profitable ideas, progress and innovation by unleashing women's talent and creativity." With business's strong focus on innovation as a market differentiator we should encourage leaders that can promote innovation as well as improved execution. Carella concluded from a study of fortune 500 companies "... that companies that have women in top management roles experience what we call 'innovation intensity' and produce more patents-by an average of 20 percent more than teams with male leaders." (Blumberg 2018) whereas Hewlett, Marshall and Sherbin (2013) point out that "Companies don't need more Boy Geniuses. To court the $20 trillion market of female consumers, companies need to get serious about leveraging female talent."

On the whole, gender quotas for leadership positions pay dividends for companies, their employees and for the increasing trend towards innovation. The benefits attained from putting women into leadership positions outweigh the argument that positions should only be based upon merit using selection criteria traditionally favouring what society considers masculine traits of authority.

When career coaching women whose ambitions or desires are to achieve leadership positions, I need to consider the embedded social and global bias towards women in organisational recruitment and development and the social conditioning of women causing them to be overlooked in the candidacy for higher positions. Carella's insights also have implications when coaching for innovation where female participation appears to boost innovative ideas and disruption, and their perspective on the female consumer market can significantly boost company profits. If a company was to ask me to help them with innovation, the first question I might ask is, “How many females to do you have at the leadership level?”


Chamorro-Premuzic, T 2013, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, Harvard Business Review. Available from: [04 January 2019]

Coffman, K, Exley, C & Niederle, M 2017, "When Gender Discrimination Is Not About Gender.", HBS No. 18-054, Harvard Business School Working Paper, (Revised August 2018.) [04 January 2019]

European Institute for Gender Equality 2014, Benefits of Gender Equality. Available from: [27 February 2019]

IndexMundi 2018, World Demographics Profile 2018. Available from: [12 January 2019].

MacLellan, L 2017, The biggest myth about our brains is that they are “male” or “female”, Quartz, 27 August. Available from: [23 February 2019]

Mitchell, S 1988, Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, HarperCollins, New York.

Preethi 2011, Women, It’s Time To Be Less Humble, Women’s Web. Available from: [25 February 2019]

Tavris, C 1993, The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex, Simon & Schuster, New York.

TED Talks 2010, Halla Tomasdottir: A feminine response to Iceland's financial crash, YouTube video, 10 December. Available from: [23 February 2019].

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Duane Hennessy

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