LONDON -- Quotas aimed at boosting the number of women holding senior executive roles within technology companies could potentially backfire, according to panelists at Light Reading's Women in Comms (WiC) event in London on Thursday morning.
Instead, there should be greater focus on grassroots initiatives encouraging girls to look more seriously at roles in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and making it easier for women to enter the workforce.
Both the public and private sectors are considering ways of addressing the under-representation of women in company boardrooms generally, but such measures could damage the position of women in the long term, attendees at the WiC event were told.
"Countries are proud to talk about their targets, and I think the UK wants 30% of board positions to be held by women by 2020, but the danger is when this becomes a quota that has to be achieved," said Mervat El Dabae, the director of global business solutions and strategy for Netcracker Technology Corp. . "That is very dangerous for women in the industry -- we need to make sure it's not by enforcement but merit."
A UK government report published last month showed that FTSE 100 companies have beaten a target set in 2011 of ensuring that one quarter of board positions are filled by women this year.
That report wants the proportion of roles taken by women to rise to one-third by 2020, but it has backed away from recommending that quotas be used to help realize this goal.
Nevertheless, quotas have been used in other parts of Europe with some positive results, according to audience member Renée Robinson Strömberg, the head of marketing for Tail-f Systems , a Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)-owned company that develops network services orchestration technologies.
"Research shows that having a quota system in Norway has actually raised the standards of all boards and reduced the old boys' network because it has to be transparent and based on qualifications," she says. "I think there is a lot to be said about having a 'stretch goal' -- without that it's going to be hard."
Alexandra Birtles, the head of loyalty strategy for TalkTalk Business, a UK broadband operator, agrees that quotas could help to address the boardroom imbalance but also warns about the downside. (See A Vast Valley: Tech's Inexcusable Gender Gap.)
"I worry that you are actually undermining women if you have under-qualified women going into roles simply because of quotas," she says.
Like other speakers at the event, Birtles would prefer to see greater attention on increasing the size of the female talent pool for STEM roles. "Then you'll get women going through to the board," she says.
TalkTalk has already made good progress on attracting women into executive roles by offering flexible working arrangements to its employees, allowing them to more easily juggle work and family commitments, according to Birtles.
The company is also one of the few technology companies in the UK led by a woman -- Dido Harding having been CEO since 2010.
Equipment maker Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN) and mobile operator Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) also have initiatives designed to attract more female employees and bolster the standing of women in their respective organizations. (See More Women in Tech Is Critically Important.)
Keri Gilder, Ciena's vice president of global accounts, has helped to set up a global women council to improve what she describes as "diversity" within her company.
Mentoring is of critical importance if women are to move up the corporate ranks, according to Gilder, who urges women to seek out both female and male mentors if they are serious about advancing their careers. "The reality is that people at the top are mainly men and you have to understand where executives are coming from and what they are looking for in a leader," she says. (See Championing Change: It's a Cultural Thing.)
Vodafone, meanwhile, has introduced corporate policies making it easier for women to take maternity leave, even in countries that do not have laws in this area, and from January the operator will engage with schools through a program called Inspiring the Future, which is aimed partly at encouraging girls to consider STEM careers, according to Julia Velasco, Vodafone UK 's head of south area network. (See Vodafone: What's Good for Moms Is Good for Business.)
Recruiters and HR departments could play a crucial part in enticing more women into tech-sector careers by rethinking the way they write job specifications, according to Velasco, who jokingly notes that women tend to rule themselves out of jobs when they do not tick all of the boxes while men think they are perfect if they meet only 60% of requirements. (See Getting More Women Into STEM and Grace Hopper: Power to the Pipeline .)
"You should make sure the job spec is written in a way that will appeal and look for people who may have valuable skills that weren't included in it," said Dana Tobak, the managing director of Hyperoptic , another UK broadband operator, when asked by a recruiter in the audience what could be done to attract more women.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading