By Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of Evolved People Media, LLC

In March 2010, the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women will undertake a fifteen-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration. It was at this meeting in China that a group of 50,000 people representing 189 governments actively agreed a goal to increase women in leadership positions.

The magic number became known as the 30% solution, the idea being that once women reached a Critical Mass in an organization, people would stop seeing them as women and start evaluating their work as managers. This theory was originally developed more than 40 years ago by Harvard academic Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her book Men and Women of the Corporation.

Fifteen years after the Beijing Declaration, Norway is the only country to have progressed towards this goal via legislation – championed by someone who definitely doesn’t meet the profile of a typical feminist. Norwegian politician Ansgar Gabrielsen is a Pentecostal Christian, and an archetypal alpha-male businessman. His reasons seem logical and resource driven.

“What’s the point in pouring a fortune into educating girls, and then watching them exceed boys at almost every level, if, when it comes to appointing business leaders in top companies, these are drawn from just half the population – friends who have been recruited on fishing and hunting trips or from within a small circle of acquaintances?” he says. “It’s all about tapping into valuable under-utilised resources.”

How to Build a Corporate-Driven Critical Mass Solution

France recently followed with a quota-based approach. And the UK is discussing quotas as a possibility with most people agreeing that the organic growth just isn’t there for getting women in the pipeline.

Interestingly, the US experts have the most disparity in opinion on how to achieve more female leaders. A quota system just does not culturally fit well and women themselves have voiced their concern of being accused publicly or otherwise of being given the job, under a quota system, “just because they are a women.”

Yet, Norway’s success shows that quotas do actually work. So, instead of letting politics and lexicon kill the momentum of this important issue, we need to implement a Critical Mass system that works within the cultural values of the US or the UK.

First, let’s dismiss outright government enforced quotas and consider CEO enforced targets as a way to get us to the desired Critical Mass of women in management and leadership positions. The effect of Critical Mass would mean it wouldn’t be unusual to have a female boss or to perceive a leader as someone who could be wearing a skirt; we wouldn’t automatically accredit better decision-making to the male brain. We need to think of Critical Mass is a business strategy that results in breaking “Group Think,” which contributed heavily to the 2008 financial crisis.

In fact, Jacki Zehner and the National Council for Research on Women have been advocating the Critical Mass principle and have completed a full research document for the Fund Management Industry (which we reported on back in July this year) “Women in Fund Management: A Roadmap for Achieving Critical Mass and Why It Matters.” Zehner believes that that when women are present at decision making tables in sufficient numbers the quality of the decision making improves and group think can be minimized.

“I can think of no other action that would have greater positive corporate impact then the adoption of a voluntary Critical Mass Principle for corporate boards of publicly traded companies,” Zehner says. “A large amount of research suggests that when talented women are added in sufficient numbers the quality of overall decision-making improves. There is a proven and measure positive correlation between the number of senior women at an organization and their stock price and performance.”

Why Haven’t We Gotten Close to Achieving Critical Mass?

Shifra Bronznick, Founding President, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, commented to me at an event for The White House Project that “We have all the research and data we need to show that beyond a shadow of a doubt when women are in leadership, the bottom line improves, stakeholder value improves. What is not demonstrated here is the will to let the data drive strategy.”

There are enough women to sit on boards, and yet they only make up a small percentage of board seats. So, in order to solve the problem of increasing female leadership, we must look to the hiring processes primarily and then to the development attention given to women executives throughout their career.

The 2 main obstacles to Critical Mass are:

  1. Making sure enough women get opportunities at mid level points in their career so they have the hard skills to be chosen for senior leadership.Joanne Cavallara of De Cava Consulting said she and her fellow corporate board committee members at The Boston Club are aware of the ad hoc reasons behind the lack of female representation in the executive ranks and on boards — cultural mores and the tenacious association between leadership and masculinity, as well as women’s own obligations and priorities, all of which are evident in the workplace. But conversations must begin between those who are concerned about this lack and those who have the power to change things. She says, “I’m trying to start conversations with diversity and HR executives about how we [can] ensure that women, particularly women at the mid levels, are getting the kinds of developmental assignments they typically don’t get offered.”

    Additionally, further research by DDI, in its work “Holding Women Back,” suggests that organisational support, weak for both sexes as they change jobs, decreases more for women as they move up the career ladder. DDI also found a male bias embedded in HR policies that promote talent and identify future leaders.

  2. Accountability is lacking. HR professionals do not adhere to targets in the way that other departments of a company do. The most damaging reason for this is because the CEO and top executives aren’t asking tough questions. Diversity isn’t considered, in most cases, a key performance indicator for the health of the business and thereby offers a chance for unconscious bias to come into play. In fact, as Anthony Hesketh of the Lancaster University Management School and co-author of, “Mismanaging Talent,” acknowledges, the brightest and best are not only judged on their abilities and past achievements but by a more subjective measure of their likely fit, based on the recruiters’ own preconceptions of worth.Linda Whelan Tarr, author of Women Lead the Way comments,

    “Accountability is essential if we are going to reach a Critical Mass of women in decision-making. We are a long way from the tipping point of the 30% solution when women’s ideas and experience is valued. Targets and a monitoring process are key. Every successful business endeavor operates from clear benchmarks. Somehow when we talk about targets for more women at the table to produce a healthier bottom line, this has been mis-labeled with a scare word, “quotas” and then dismissed. Targets for more women at the table to improve business outcomes is simply a smart business strategy.”

How does your company monitor such processes? Only a handful do it properly and until that is addressed, all talent development and hiring is at the mercy of the HR department, some without dedicated diversity teams to ensure targets are met at every level. We need measurement so that the default excuse of “we hired the best person for the job” is more than hiring someone who looks like the next guy. Critical Mass means the new hire is just as likely to look like the next girl too.