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Quotas Vs. Questions

A couple of months ago I met with a senior female executive to discuss working with her company on a coaching programme. We met in a beautifully decorated members’ club over coffee on a sunny, late-summer afternoon. I had been introduced to her as her company was actively seeking to recruit coaches from more ethnically diverse backgrounds to their current roster. We discussed their initiative and I expressed some concerns I had around recruiting based on race and not on ability alone. She offered a really interesting perspective about the value of ‘quotas’ and how these have helped more women to be appointed at board level (although much more needs to be done) and how they have helped black people to play sport at a professional level in South Africa.

All the way home I thought about quotas and “positive discrimination.”

My first encounter with “positive discrimination” was in the early 90’s as a 6th former looking at University options. A 6th form tutor told a group of us black students that ‘Oxbridge’ were actively seeking to recruit black students from state schools. He explained that this was part of a drive to widen the Oxbridge student population, before the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ had been coined. At the tender age of 17 I remember feeling uncomfortable at the idea that universities would admit people, not just because of their talent but because they met the criteria that would fulfill an obligation. As it turned out, I was not amongst the chosen few who were to be positively discriminated for.

25 years later, the conversations still go on.

So what is Positive Discrimination and why does it exist?

Positive Discrimination is “…the act of giving advantage to those groups in society that are often treated unfairly because of their race, sex etc…”

There are people that see a place for it. The senior female executive firmly believed that quotas had changed the tide for women in the boardroom, and argued that it could change the tide for ethnic minorities next. I can appreciate her point of view and it made me think somewhat differently. However, as an educated, experienced, black woman, I would like to be seen for my talent, knowledge and skills and be considered for those merits. I would also like to see a level playing field where choices and decisions are open to new areas, experience and expertise… and don’t automatically default to the tried and tested. It’s beginning to happen. I’d like to see it more.

I want leaders to choose people for their fresh perspective and unique insights, rather than as a token gesture to fulfill an obligation — something that is rarely appreciated by either side. An inclusive, diverse environment opens the door to rich discussion and forward thinking.

Although things have changed in the last 25 years, recent political events around the world tell me that the change is not happening widely or quickly enough. However, I am hearing more people using their voices to call this out through their writing and on social media. I feel emboldened now more than ever to question more openly and more often why there are not more black faces at the table. I have also made it my mission to open doors for more people like me. I’m actively stepping out of my comfort zone and boldly entering spaces without worrying about being the only black person. I call out the companies I’m working with to notice when there’s a lack of diversity and come up with ways to ensure the playing field is wide open. Not just through quotas, but through honest, powerful questions.

What do you do when you find yourself in a room, a team, or a community that lacks colour? What do you wish you could say? Do you care? I’d love to know!

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