Last week the French National Assembly approved a bill requiring listed companies to ensure that women fill 50 per cent of board positions by 2015. The bill, still to be debated in the French Senate, builds on similar provisions in Norway, which have been shown to help promote gender equality and to make good business sense.
In Australia, women hold 8.3 per cent of board director positions of ASX 200 companies and chair just 2 per cent of boards. This gross and costly under-representation has been perpetuated by widespread devotion to the fallacies that quotas undermine the merit principle and threaten our market economy.
Anyone who thinks that prevailing practice in board recruitment is merit-based is kidding themselves. Women make up more than 50 per cent of the population, 45 per cent of the workforce and are more highly educated than men. There is no good reason why they should be so vastly under-represented in leadership positions.
Far from being merit-based, the status quo is discrimination dressed up as impartiality. The elusiveness of meaningful equality can be partly attributed to the more insidious forms of discrimination that are entrenched in our institutions and social structures.
The gender pay gap, unequal distribution of unpaid caring work, sexual harassment, inadequate parental leave arrangements and pervasive gender stereotypes all impede women's full and equal participation in the workforce. Quotas will not solve all these problems, but they are a step in the right direction.
The suggestion that the Government should set mandatory targets has traditionally been met with fear and derision. Regulation is often cast as the enemy of efficiency and growth; it is not. Government regulates to promote workplace safety, consumer protection and a competitive market economy. Gender equality is as worthy a goal and deserves the same commitment.
Quotas are not the operational and financial burdens that they are often made out to be. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. Numerous studies have shown that companies with a higher proportion of women on their boards out-perform their more male-dominated competitors. Greater gender equality in the workforce also improves national productivity. Equality and efficiency are mutually reinforcing.
The corporate sector is beginning to recognise and respond to the problem. Last month the ASX Corporate Governance Council said that it would require listed companies to report on the numbers and positions of women in their companies as part of its corporate governance reporting requirements. This is a positive move, but more should be done.
The Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Act and Agency is under review, with the Office of Women due to report later this year. In the review, the Government should seriously consider setting staged gender diversity targets and imposing penalties if they are not reached. Targets should apply to government boards as well as publicly listed companies.
The number of women in top jobs has decreased in recent years, making it clear that weak reporting requirements and voluntary mentoring schemes are not enough to achieve equality. Soft strategies must be supplemented by robust action, including law reform, coupled with corporate commitment to achieving solid outcomes.
The 2008 report of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 recognises that legislation aimed at promoting equal opportunity for women in the workplace should ''require something more than the development of a program and reporting on the program: it should require progress.''
The implementation of the committee's recommendations to reform the act - including a shift towards laws that attack systemic discrimination and promote substantive equality - would be a further step in the right direction.
The Government has a window of opportunity to respond to the systemic discrimination that pervades Australian boardrooms. Our international human rights and labour rights obligations, economic imperatives and common sense demand it.
Rachel Ball is a lawyer at the Human Rights Law Resource Centre. Seventy per cent of the centre's board are women.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.