Equal seats at the table: Why philanthropy should embrace gender quotas


Neera Nundy


In 2023 women comprised only 4.7 percent of CEOs in India, highlighting a significant gender gap in leadership roles.

Despite remarkable strides in education and the workforce over the past half-century, women remain underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership across sectors. Whether in corporate boardrooms, legislative bodies, academic institutions, judicial systems, or philanthropic organizations, men overwhelmingly occupy the majority of leadership positions.

According to the United Nations Gender Snapshot 2023, the lack of women in leadership is one of the top hurdles for achieving global gender equity. As highlighted in ‘An Unbalanced Scale’, a report published by Dasra, women make up only 3.9 percent of Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) in India. The report also noted that as of May 2022, women occupied less than 15 percent of the seats in the Indian Parliament, Lok Sabha, which is also the highest-ever number of women parliamentarians in the House. This persistent disparity underscores the need for measures to ensure equitable representation and harness the full potential of diverse leadership to drive societal progress.

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In philanthropy, incorporating diverse perspectives is crucial for effectively addressing complex social issues. Reflecting on my background in STEM education and investment banking, I was one of the few women from that background at Harvard Business School, where women made up only about 30-33 percent of the class. This experience underscored the significant impact that educational and professional opportunities can have on achieving leadership positions. Implementing gender quotas can be a pivotal step towards bridging the gender gap, fostering inclusive growth, and unleashing the full potential of philanthropic initiatives to create a more equitable society.

State of Gender Representation in Indian Philanthropy

The philanthropic sector in India, like many others, faces a significant gender imbalance in leadership roles. This underrepresentation is not due to a lack of capable women but rather systemic barriers that impede their progress. However, recent trends indicate a shift towards greater gender diversity.

The India Philanthropy Report 2024, co-authored by Dasra and Bain & Company, highlights the growing influence of women in philanthropy. Early insights and emerging data from GivingPi, India’s first family-focused philanthropy network, reveals that approximately 70 percent of its members across over 210 families report active female participation in their philanthropic activities, and 54 percent indicate that their philanthropy efforts are led by women. This shift towards more inclusive leadership structures within Indian philanthropy is encouraging, as it suggests that diverse perspectives are being increasingly valued.

The Rationale for Gender Quotas

The broader corporate landscape in India, along with the philanthropic sector, has seen gradual improvements in gender diversity. According to the 2024 Deloitte Global report on gender diversity on boards and women in leadership, women held 18.3 percent of board seats in 2023, up from 13.8 percent in 2018 and 17.1 percent in 2021. While this progress is notable, it still falls short of the global average of 23.3 percent.

Despite these gains, achieving gender parity on boards in India remains a challenging goal without a strong pipeline of women leaders. Gender quotas can play a crucial role in addressing this persistent gender gap. By mandating a minimum level of female representation, quotas ensure that women have equal opportunities to participate in decision-making processes. Diverse leadership teams are proven to enhance organizational effectiveness, with studies showing that organizations with gender-diverse boards perform better financially and are more innovative. This is due to the varied perspectives and ideas that diverse teams bring, leading to more comprehensive and effective decision-making.

The experiences of Norway and Sweden offer valuable lessons for the implementation of gender quotas. Norway’s mandatory quotas have increased female representation on corporate boards, enhancing board diversity and improving decision-making quality. Despite some firms opting to delist, the presence of women has positively influenced boardroom culture and strategy. Sweden, through voluntary measures, has also achieved impressive female representation on boards, demonstrating that strong gender diversity can be attained through both mandates and proactive corporate policies.

These examples highlight the potential of gender quotas to drive meaningful change in leadership diversity. The pool of qualified women is significant, and claiming the inability to find capable women for leadership roles is no longer a valid excuse. The challenge lies not in the availability of capable women but in their drop-out rates due to mid-career barriers, often related to family responsibilities. The systemic barriers women face, often rooted in deeply ingrained patriarchal norms, will not dissolve on their own.

Proactive measures like gender quotas are essential to break these barriers. By enforcing quotas at the top, it becomes possible to push more women from middle to top leadership positions. At the same time, it is important to reward and celebrate companies, foundations, and institutions that embrace gender diversity, while also imposing consequences for those that fail to do so. This balanced approach can ensure more women move from mid-level to top leadership positions, fully utilizing their talents and maximizing their contributions.

What Can Philanthropy Do?

The gender leadership gap in philanthropy won’t close on its own. Decisive action is needed. It requires proactive measures rather than waiting for gradual change. Organizations must undergo cultural and policy transformations to foster a supportive environment for women leaders.

Establishing platforms for mutual support, mentorship, and peer learning is crucial. These collaborative spaces enable women to share experiences, tackle challenges head-on, and celebrate their successes. This approach not only enhances their leadership capabilities but also ensures their voices are heard and valued.

It’s time to disrupt the status quo. By fostering a robust network of women leaders, philanthropy can spearhead a shift, driving inclusive growth and maximizing the sector’s impact. This isn’t just about filling seats—it’s about reshaping the landscape to be more equitable and dynamic, where diverse leadership becomes the norm.

The future of philanthropy with gender quotas is promising. As more women ascend to leadership roles, we can anticipate a more diverse, innovative, and impactful philanthropic sector.

Neera Nundy is the Co-founder and Partner at Dasra India, a strategic philanthropic organisation.

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