Opposition is building up in the UK and the argument is a predictable one: it is better to find ways for women to move naturally up the ladder. But this won't happen any more than we will have better representation for SCs/STs through a natural process (of superior education, economic betterment etc). For these things to happen naturally would take another 100 years or so and, that too, with a lot of luck. There are entrenched prejudices. Equally important, women's need for motherhood could come in the way of their corporate careers. Also, their preference for soft skills, such as HR, instead of marketing and finance could prove something of an obstacle in the rat race. This preference, in turn, arises from women realising that being in areas such as HR can given them more flexibility in their careers and work schedules.
Schumpeter makes these points well in a recent article in the Economist:
Several factors hold women back at work. Too few study science, engineering, computing or maths. Too few push hard for promotion. Some old-fashioned sexism persists, even in hip, liberal industries. But the biggest obstacle (at least in most rich countries) is children. However organised you are, it is hard to combine family responsibilities with the ultra-long working hours and the “anytime, anywhere” culture of senior corporate jobs. A McKinsey study in 2010 found that both women and men agreed: it is tough for women to climb the corporate ladder with teeth clamped around their ankles. Another McKinsey study in 2007 revealed that 54% of the senior women executives surveyed were childless compared with 29% of the men (and a third were single, nearly double the proportion of partnerless men).
Many talented, highly educated women respond by moving into less demanding fields where the hours are more flexible, such as human resources or public relations. Some go part-time or drop out of the workforce entirely. Relatively few stay in the most hard-driving jobs, such as strategy, finance, sales and operations, that provide the best path to the top.
Thus, quotas are the only way to ensure greater gender diversity on boards.The contention that this will dilute 'merit' or 'quality' on boards is utterly laughable. The performance of boards everywhere is so pathetic that almost any change or innovation would be an improvement. One of the things about quota for women is that it will necessarily bring in people from outside the closed club in which boards now operate.
Perhaps the most important reason boards do badly is that there is not enough diversity of views or perspectives. Bringing in women will make some difference in this respect. To improve boards, bring in women and also bring in workers, minority shareholders and institutional shareholders- in short, anybody who is a stranger to today's charmed circle whose members think they need only to nod their heads and slap each other's backs.