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A Jump Start is Better Than No Start

Sometimes a shove is needed where a nudge won’t do. Sometimes, sadly, a kick in the pants is just the ticket to spark some serious change. Sometimes being impatient is a good thing.

I am a big fan of lines drawn in the sand, I admit. They excite me to no end, because they signal a boundary has been set or in some cases, a gauntlet has been thrown down.

There has been much debate about the World Economic Forum’s decision to institute quotas for their most recent annual meeting held in Davos, Switzerland. Frustrated that women make up less than 16% of the delegates, they decided to set quotes requiring a fifth of the delegates sent by their strategic partners be women. A spokesperson for the WEF said the intent was to give a “gentle nudge toward gender parity.”

Many applauded the bold move, even while expressing sadness that it took such drastic measures to ignite some real change. Others were outraged, suggesting the quotes weren’t having any impact and were effectively reducing women’s participation to simply numbers, and detracting from the value they bring. When I asked women on my SheChanges Facebook page, I heard a similar mix of opinions. The overriding sentiment, however, is that the main objective is to get more women at the table. Most everyone agrees that nothing will change if women remain on the sidelines. One women suggested the focus should be on the results produced by the quotas, rather than the quotas themselves: “I think we should not demonize or idealize quotas or anything that [gets more women to the table]. We just need to do it and get them there.”

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, authors of Rework, offers some relevant insight on the power of drawing a line in the sand: “Great businesses have a point of view, not just a product or a service. You have to believe in something. You need to have a backbone. You need to know what you’re willing to fight for. And then you need to show the world.” They assert that this strong stand of drawing a line in the sand – as radical and counter-intuitive as it seems, actually results in attracting “superfans” – people who will defend your actions and spread the word.

The World Economic Forum drew a line in the sand. And so did Norway in 2002, when it began using quotas to ensure 40% of all board seats were filled by women. And after seeing the results, Spain, France and Britain are following suit.

The general consensus is that the business world won’t see or feel much of a change until there is a 50/50 representation of women and men in the workplace. Until then, the primary jumper cables to achieve more gender parity in our engines are quotas and women’s conferences.

But where my attention goes in the wake of this controversial WEF gender quota is how much rousing discussion and debate it triggered. Sure, there might not have been many more women at Davos this year than in years past, but there it sure sparked a lot of attention. Heads turned and people took notice. Some smoke was created. And where there is smoke there is fire.