The Risks of Quotas

Quotas for underrepresented groups are commonly used by organisations to measure and improve diversity outcomes.

These quotas play a role in providing an objective target to aim at. They ensure we hold ourselves accountable and measure progress over time, encouraging action above and beyond 'just talk'.

Yet there is nevertheless a risk in approaches that try to measure the success of a policy based on target numbers in isolation. The risk is that we end up measuring only the symptoms of the problem, rather than looking at the systems and mechanisms that caused the problem in the first place. This in turn leads to counterproductive behaviour that prioritises short term targets ahead of long term, sustainable improvement.

When confronted with ambitious (and sometimes public) targets, we may find ourselves tracking "how many male and female employees do we have" rather than "does our process truly provide equal opportunity for applicants of all backgrounds?".

It's this sort of approach that sees companies sometimes adopt poor practice. We see redundancy or transfer packages offered only to male staff within business units because 'losing' the female employees would reflect badly on the section manager's KPIs. Or we see Indigenous staff employed under niche contracts to meet publicly declared targets but then confined to these set parcels of roles within the organisation, essentially locked in with little to no opportunity for meaningful career progression.

Both of these approaches make practical sense against the narrow definition of 'achieving the target'. But take a step back and it's farcical, the equivalent of achieving one's weight loss goals by starving. Sure, the numbers on the scale will move in the right direction. But it's not the healthy outcome we sought when we set our target - it's not a sustainable improvement.

Targets can be a powerful tool in guiding change. But if we are targeting sustainable outcomes we must focus on fixing systemic problems - rather than just their symptoms.

In other words we should ask not only 'did you hit your targets' - but also 'how did you hit them?'.