IBM has appointed its first-ever woman CEO. Virginia Rometty, a senior vice president, will succeed Samuel J. Palmisano at the start of next year. This is good news. Rometty will be joining the rather small group of female CEOs in the technology industry including Ursula Burns of Xerox and Meg Whitman of Hewlett – Packard. That prominent women executives in our industry can be counted on the fingers of one hand is not good news.
But what is even worse, is that after zillions of campaigns promoting diversity in the workplace and numerous European treatises and conventions enshrining gender equality as a human right, appointments of women to senior positions are still being received with great suspicion. “Ginni got it because she deserved it,” Mr. Palmisano said in a recent interview. “It’s got zero to do with progressive social policies” Mr. Palmisano rushed to add to appease all those skeptics who confuse ‘progressive social policies’ (aka quotas) with tokenism.
Ms Rometty, who graduated from Northwestern University with an undergraduate degree in computer science, has led the growth and development of IBM’s huge services business for more than a decade. Her abilities, hard work and success have rightfully placed her as one of the leading candidates for the CEO position and gender, as Mr Palmisano has made clear, did not figure into her selection. But what if it did? Why does the implementation of quotas carry such a stigma?
Instituting progressive social policies does not mean placing women to positions they don’t deserve. Quite the contrary, the purpose of quota systems is to encourage the correction of long-standing and culturally entrenched biases. There are plenty highly-qualified women out there facing a glass ceiling due to outdated views on how ‘leaders’ should look like.
According to a recent survey, just 135 out of 1,076 (12.5%) FTSE 100 directorships are held by women. In the blue-chip index, 18 companies have no women on the board at all, while in the FTSE 250 that is true of nearly 50% of firms. To say that the pace of change towards gender equality is slow is an understatement. According to Lord Davies, it will take more than 70 years to reach gender parity on UK’s boards at the current pace of change.
Implementing quota systems is neither patronising towards women nor unfair towards men. It’s our last resort to promote equal opportunity and as the history of discrimination has shown, sometimes it takes legislation to drag societies along the path of equality. Isn’t that so Milly, Mary and Gini?