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If you are eager to get more women into the boardroom and see quotas as the best way of achieving this, where you live could be the deciding factor in success or failure.

According to academics, “tight” cultures, countries such as Germany, Norway or Pakistan where individuals conform to social norms and obey authority, are more likely to comply with boardroom gender quotas. In contrast “looser” cultures which are more open to change and experience higher rates of change such as those of the US, Canada and New Zealand find it harder to implement gender quotas.

“Tight cultures tend to have the worst rates of female leadership, but the compliance they command can be used to advantage, making gender quota strategies much more effective,” says Soo Min Toh, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, who conducted the research with her colleague Geoffrey Leonardelli.

In order to compare countries according to their ‘tightness,’ the two professors used an index created by Michele Gelfand, a researcher from the University of Maryland, who ranked 33 countries using the degree to which each culture maintains social norms, adheres to authority structures and tolerates deviations from them.

Countries lower down the scale, such as Canada, Hungary, New Zealand and the US, were considered to have “loose cultures” and deemed less effective by Prof Toh and Prof Leonardelli in achieving gender equality through quotas. “Loose” cultures allow for a lot of debate about how to implement quotas, Prof Toh explains. As a result change takes longer despite cultural openness to it. In “tighter” countries, quotas are just rolled out and prove effective.

Norway, for example – which is described as having a “tight” culture – achieved a target of 40 per cent of women in director positions at public companies by 2007 through a quota that included dissolution of those companies that failed to meet the threshold.

Prof Toh now lives in Canada but is originally from Singapore, another ‘tight’ culture. She is undecided on where she would rather be. “I enjoy the orderliness of Singapore, but I enjoy the freedom of ideas in Canada. Everyone has their own way of doing things,” she says. “‘Loose’ cultures are great for innovation, but ‘tight’ cultures are great at implementing innovation.”

The research – which has been published in the journal Organizational Dynamics and in a blog for the Harvard Business Review – has a message for those living in both, says Prof Toh. In “loose” cultures, comfort can be drawn from the knowledge that while the structure of quotas may be difficult to agree and enforce, they will make a big difference. In “tight” cultures, quotas are clearly a successful way of promoting women. “We can’t tell nations to loosen up or tighten up, but we can change practices,” she adds.

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