How can we move past our reliance on “binders”?
By Leah Eichler (Founder, Femme-O-Nomics)

The Internet is anything but forgiving and the now infamous Mitt Romney gaffe from the second presidential debate where he referred to “binders full of women” provided endless fodder for the social media set. I must admit spending a not insignificant amount of time smugly scanning the endless number of memes on the topic. It provided some momentary comic relief in a presidential race, where women’s issues – from pay equity to abortion – regularly dominate the agenda.

But now that we’ve all had a good laugh and creatively expressed our indignation, its time to move past Romney’s poorly worded defense of how he advocated for women before the meme eclipses the underlying social issue: How can we move past our reliance on “binders”.

Many businesses still claim they struggle to find qualified female or other diversity candidates for senior leadership roles and to meet some minimum diversity requirements they turn to lists – or “binders” to borrow a Romneyism. After all these years of arguing the business case for diversity and despite the strides women have made in corporations, the sentiment still persists that there are not enough qualified female candidates to fit top roles. This is the cue for a list of women’s resumes to make its appearance.

“The one benefit to the ‘binders of names’ is that it challenges the perception that there are no qualified and experienced women out there able to do the senior roles, be that in the C-Suite or on the board,” explained Charlotte Sweeney, founder of Charlotte Sweeney Associates Ltd, a consultancy firm that supports companies going through a culture change to promote diversity and inclusion.

Ms. Sweeney, who was previously the head of diversity and inclusion at Nomura International observed that a disconnect continues to persist between the vocalized desire of corporations and the accurate representation of women. While corporations are saying they want to hire more women and many hiring firms state that are bringing more diverse candidates to the table, there still appears to be a significant number of high caliber candidates looking for the right opportunities. To Ms. Sweeney, the solution lies in changing corporate culture, which takes time if done organically.

There is one approach to speeding up a change in corporate culture: quotas. The mere mention of quotas can whip up most North American executives into a frenzy but the impact on business culture can be dramatic.

Take Norway for example – a country that led the way in quotas. Before the law was proposed in 2002, the number of women on boards of publicly traded companies remained stagnant around 5%. The number skyrocketed from 6% in 2002 to 40% in 2008 and according to Dr. Morten Huse, a professor of organization and management at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, carried a profound impact on business culture.

Dr. Huse observed in his research that only a couple of years after Norway instituted quotas on corporate boards, the “old boys network” had been replaced by two other groups he calls the “golden skirts” and “gold sacks.” The golden skirts represent professional multi-board directors making a living from being independent board members while remain men constitute independent investors or “gold sacks.” But these boards function quite differently than the “old boy’s club.”

“The golden skirts do not constitute a network. Interlocking directorates hardly exist between them, and the women hardly meet outside the boards,” observed Dr. Huse.

“The multi-board members today are the golden skirts and gold sacks, and the old boys network is not very visible any more on corporate boards,” added Dr. Huse.

Here’s another benefit: since it’s a common criterion to expect previous board experience, these “golden skirts” are now being exported to other countries in need of candidates, explained Dr. Huse.
In Norway, it has become a “reputation building initiative to have women on boards,” he added.

Admittedly, quotas are a hard sell, in North America and abroad. Just this week an EU initiative to institute legislation calling for quotas on corporate boards had been postponed until November, prompting EU Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding to tweet “I will not give up.”

Quotas strike many in the business community as an unpalatable option that smacks of tokenism and insinuates promoting those without merit. That sentiment isn’t a far cry from the current, voluntary option – or “binders full of women.” Unfortunately, that taint of tokenism, regardless of a company’s approach, will not go away until business culture has evolved. As Ms. Sweeney quipped, quoting her friend Sheelagh Whittaker, the first female CEO of EDS Canada, “we know we’ll have equality when we have as many incompetent women in senior positions as we have men.”

But to get there, we’ll need a better option than binders.

This post was originally published at Femmeonomics.

About the guest blogger: Leah Eichler is the Founder of Femme-O-Nomics, a content portal for professional women. She is also the Founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration app. Leah is a columnist on issues surrounding women in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter at @femmeonomics.