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Sat, 01 Jun 2013 14:15:00 GMT | By Deirdre McMurdy, MSN Money

Gender quotas are a bad idea

There’s always more to the story when it comes to gender gaps — in income or in the boardroom.

Deirdre McMurdy

For the most part, fancy social research studies pretty much confirm what we already know.

And so it is with the latest Pew Research Center report, which informs us that moms are the new dads. Fully 40 per cent of U.S. households with kids under 18 have mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families.

By now, most of us have encountered dads making play date arrangements, lurching through the aisles of grocery stores and racing to after-school pick up.

This phenomenon reflects two things: the economic downturn affected more jobs in male-dominated sectors like manufacturing, and the fact that more women have earned university degrees than men.

In many cases, it also reflects that in many cases, a well-balanced family life can accommodate 1.5 careers. And it’s typical for whoever earns the most to bring home their salary on behalf of everyone else.

Given that women now earn about 57 per cent of all bachelor’s degrees, 60 per cent of all master’s degrees and 52 per cent of doctorates, it’s increasingly likely to be dad who has the 0.5 per cent career.

What the Pew research reveals is not some great, equalizing victory for women, but the emergence of a disturbing new gender gap. Specifically, it’s an intra-gender gap between have and have-not women.

Where women are educated and married, the median family income is about $80,000 — $2,000 more than in families where the man is the primary breadwinner.

But in 63 per cent of cases, women who are primary earners are single parents and their annual median income is $23,000. In other words, despite the good quotas and employment equity may have done over the years to level the field for women, there’s more to the story.

This brings us to the government of Ontario’s recent decision to work together with the Ontario Securities Commission to establish a formal policy on increasing the number of women on boards of directors and in senior management ranks.

The province is currently reviewing options which range from outright quotas (something that’s been undertaken in several European countries) to “comply or explain” requirements. Much like negative-option billing, the latter means that publicly traded companies would have to disclose gender equality policies and set goals for including women on their boards, or explain why it hasn’t been done.

Companies have been exhorted for years to appoint more women as directors — with little effect. A recent survey indicates that women comprise just 10 per cent of Canadian corporate board members.

Canada is far from alone: Gender diversity has been the subject of many international studies, surveys, editorials and news reports. In Europe, formal quotas have been adopted in several cases and proposed in others. France, for one, now mandates that 40 per cent of directors must be female.

There’s some urgency — and opportunity — to shake things up given that an estimated one-third of current Canadian corporate directors are poised to retire in the next five years. Any opportunity, however, will not be best served through quotas.

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