Quotas won’t work without a talent pipeline

The month of March is full of women.  There is international women’s day, women’s history month and Ada Lovelace.

When we think of gender issues globally, we think in terms of rights: reproductive, health, property, suffrage, education, etc.  Like most I find it hard to grasp that these issues still plague our world, but we must not forget that they do.  I love Secretary of State Clinton’s message

we must say with one voice that “women’s progress is human progress and human progress is women’s progress.”

In the west, women’s issues tend to be more about workplace equality: pay equality and senior leadership opportunities.  However you feel about the issue, you should know that companies are taking this very seriously.   An example is Deutsche Telekom’s quota.

The Economist has a great article on this topic.  The article suggests that,  putting quotas in place without appropriate pipeline building, is going to have some negative consequences.

I have a few thoughts to add to this topic and, since The Economist forgot to ask me, I figured I’d write them here.

I do believe that there is bias at play, but I think that, in general, it is not a practice discrimination against women that creates the lack of  women in the leadership pipeline.  The problem comes often as a result of children.

That’s right people, I blame the children.


Speaking from personal experience here, there has yet to be discovered an appropriate balance of effort between the sexes when it comes to childbearing.  Yes, I do understand from my male friends that they suffer in the process of pregnancy and childbirth, and that we women need to get a spine, but I’m going to judge in favor of the female on this one.

It is often true, that during pregnancies and infancy, many women intentionally take lesser roles in our careers to balance out the needs on the personal front.  I know all kinds of women who have done this,  and I’ve yet to hear much regret in this decision.

The problem is when there is no logical path back.

Having a discussion about taking a lesser job, one that you are over qualified for, to support a more rich personal life, is relatively easy.  Having a conversation about shifting back to a more challenging job from a lesser one, is much harder.

First, there is no conversation opener — pregnancy and maternity leave/return is a great conversation starter.  In most cases, it’s really hard to avoid.  Finding yourself underutilized and overlooked is much more subtle.  There is often not a moment in time that the switch happens, it tends to come about more gradually and with less required paperwork.

Next, there is the guilt.  Should you wait until your kids are in school?  Out of school?  When is the right time?  What will your friends think?  What about your family?

Lastly, assuming you force the conversation and you rise above any guilt there is often no formal process.  You find yourself having to serve double years of service as no one is comfortable promoting you back to your old level in one jump.

My practical solution to this process, is, of course, more conversation and more flexibility.  I think companies that are serious about needing a pipeline of qualified women for senior leadership positions, need to build a process under which women who are capable and ready to take larger roles are encouraged to do so. 

There needs to be a formal process and path back.

I agree that without a pipeline, any quota system is going to have problems and the steps to build that pipeline requires a practical look at children in the equation.  This is the elephant in the room, and it must be addressed if we want to make progress.

Do it for the children!

3 thoughts on “Quotas won’t work without a talent pipeline

  1. Agreed that quotas without a plan and/or guidance on desired behaviors or principles often leads to unintended (read: negative) consequences. So, what kinds of process options would be viable? Are there influence strategies to create this change?

  2. This is a great post, it is a really tough subject to tackle and I the conversations in this area are shifting I feel. There is a lot of talk about getting balance and making a decision to focus morr on family for periods of time and work at others – smart organizations will benefit a lot from accommodating this, for both men and women.

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