Positive discrimination” has been a hot topic in the UK lately. Cranfield School of Management found that women accounted for just 12.2 percent of directors of the 100 biggest companies in 2009, and only 7.3 percent of the 250 biggest. Surprising, given that women earned 57 percent of the top degrees awarded in the UK in 2010. Almost half of British boardrooms surveyed had no female management at all.

On this side of the pond, women hold only 16 percent of corporate board seats, according to an annual survey from Catalyst. This isn’t just the case at old-school, old-boys companies. Women are basically absent on the boards of even techie, dynamic startups — Twitter and Facebook.

Why, in 2011, does the glass ceiling still exist in the corporate world? Is it possible to smash it — and, if so, who should do the smashing?

According to the Institute of Leadership & Management, which surveyed over 3,000 British managers, half of female managers admit feelings of self-doubt, compared to only 31 percent of men. Similarly, at the start of their careers only 50 percent of women expect to become managers, while two-thirds of men do. In the survey, more women aspire to running their own business rather than pushing for promotions within established firms.

These are the kinds of statistics that many cite when they justify overwhelmingly male-dominated boardrooms — “it’s not my fault, but men are better managers than women.” (After all, they might get pregnant and not come back after maternity leave).

But this deficit of female confidence in the business world is not one of nature; it’s nurture. It’s not that women can’t be good leaders, it’s that they aren’t expected to be and aren’t told that they can be. It’s the same reason girls don’t talk in math class. The problem is profoundly cultural: seeing so few people of your gender in positions higher than you erects a psychological barrier to success.

Many countries have come up with governmental “solutions” to the lack of women in the boardroom. In 2006, Norway demanded that publicly traded companies must have 40 percent females on their boards. The Netherlands, France and Spain have instituted similar quotas. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said this month that the country’s male dominated boardrooms were a “scandal” and that companies had “one last chance” to rectify the issue before facing enforced quotas.

Many European countries have found quotas successful.

Lord Mervyn Davies of Abersoch (yes that is his name), who led a British review into gender disparity, ruled out rigid, direct quotas. But his report, issued this week, cajoles individual companies to increase the proportion of women on their boards to an average of 20 percent within two years, and to 25 percent by 2015. If progress is not made, Davies warns that quotas could return to the agenda.

Mandates like this are controversial. To us, they seem un-American. When people argue against affirmative action, they say it isn’t “fair,” that it undercuts meritocracy, that it is a Band-Aid solution to larger cultural problems. “My grandfather climbed up by his own bootstraps, you can too” — and you don’t want companies run by people who have the right gender but the wrong ideas.

In America far more than Europe, it is difficult for the government to meddle in the affairs of private corporations.

The perils of educational affirmative action have been discussed for 40 years. It can backfire, leaving its beneficiaries feeling falsely patronized, and everyone else complaining about double standards. But Yale used to have a 5 percent quota for Jews and kept out women altogether; affirmative action was for white, Christian prep school men. The reason boardrooms have a tradition of white males is not just coincidence.

At first a quota seems artificial; but after a while, if it works, it can change the landscape. Yale men got used to co-education; as it turns out, girls are just as smart. Quota legislation for boardrooms might do something similar. Given the greater number of women graduating with good university degrees, enforcing quotas does not damage the meritocracy. As Amanda Jobbins, a senior executive at Cisco, stated, “While I wholly agree all roles should be appointed on merit, who is determining the definition of merit today? The male incumbents.”

Women’s success should not be measured solely by the number of corporate board seats they fill. Discrimination will not disappear because there are more women at the top; racism has not disappeared in America because Obama is President. But at least the recent European policy changes are an honest recognition that sometimes, to break the glass ceiling, you need a sledgehammer.

Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College.