Gender quotas – a progressive approach to equal opportunity, or unfair and ultimately counter-productive?
I desperately want to believe that gender quotas are a good idea. Women, particularly women who are mothers, miss out on career opportunities, and if there’s a fix for that, I’m in. But with gender quotas, I’m still on the fence.
So I’ve done some reading, and I’ve laid out the pros and the cons below, in a bid to see where I end up.
Gender Quotas – the Pros
The “Better than Nothing” Argument
Very often during debates on gender quotas, the mantra is “It’s not ideal but it’s better than what we have now.” Proponents of quotas agree that it’s a solution not without flaws, but that it’s better than sitting waiting for improvements to happen organically – we’ve been waiting for centuries to no avail, so it’s time for action. Or in other words, the end justifies the means.
The Trickle-down Effect
Gender quotas push women up the ladder, and the rest of the problems can be solved in the process. Women in leadership positions will be more likely to champion women in other areas of the organization, and help them to also progress. So over time, there will be more and more women in senior positions.
The Scandinavian Model
Gender quotas have (arguably) worked in other countries – in Norway, where there is legislation in place for quotas, 40% of board members are women. In Ireland, the figure is 8.7%.
The Utopian Flexible Future
Gender quotas could indirectly lead to more flexible, family-friendly workplaces. If companies are obliged to fill senior positions with a particular proportion of women, and no female candidates are interested in those positions because of the conditions involved (e.g. long hours, significant travel), then companies may be forced to make the roles more attractive – to build in flexible options in order to hire and retain women who have families and want balance.
Gender Quotas – the Cons
The Merit Problem
Gender quotas put a question mark over every female employee who is promoted or hired into a senior position – did she get the job because she was the best or because she is a woman?
Quotas potentially make any woman an easy target – dismissed at meetings or overlooked for projects because it’s assumed she is nothing more than the “token women” – there to fulfill a legal obligation, and not because she is good at what she does.
Self Doubt and Lack of Confidence
Women have less confidence than men – that’s well documented. And women are more likely to suffer from Impostor Syndrome – a niggling fear of not being up to the job; or having been hired for the wrong reasons.
What do gender quotas do for the woman who is already lacking confidence? Will each of us question ourselves – was I promoted because I’m good at my job, or because I’m a woman? For those who tend to question their own abilities, the successful attainment of a senior role is often the reassurance that’s required to allay niggling self-doubt, and gender quotas may remove that reassurance.
Resentment and Frustration
Gender quotas may breed resentment – a man who feels (rightly or wrongly) that he missed out on promotion because a woman filled a particular role, is likely to be frustrated and resentful. There will always be people who are unhappy with a missed promotion or a new boss, and unable to accept the situation, but gender quotas give more credence to the argument that the promotion wasn’t justified – if only in the head of the unsuccessful applicant.
As we work towards equal treatment of men and women, and companies aspire to a harmonious mix of genders at senior level, do gender quotas in fact do the opposite – create further divisions? Do they pit men against women?
Future Career Progression
Right now, if I have a new manager, she assumes I’m in my job based on merit. She will in time make up her own mind about how she rates me, but the base is solid. In a gender quota world, my new manager meets me for the first time without knowing whether or not I’m in my role because I am good at what I do, or because I’m female. Without the benefit of knowing either way, it’s possible that that niggling assumption will always colour her judgement, especially comparing me to my male colleagues. My being female becomes a mark of doubt.
Men Are Ahead of Women – Again
In a new situation where gender quotas exist, men and women are more different than ever before. Every woman is possibly in her role because of quotas, and every man is in his role because of ability. By default, men are ahead of women in terms of perception. Women have to work harder than ever to prove that there’s in a role on merit. That’s a stark difference, and I can’t see how it won’t influence opinion, consciously or sub-consciously. To me, this is the strongest argument against gender quotas – the fact that we have to prove ourselves all over again.
Overlooking the Real Problem
I’m not convinced that gender quotas will lead to 50% female board membership – not on their own. There are many barriers to female progression in the workplace, specifically for mothers, and they can’t be solved by gender quotas.
Many women who have children don’t want to work full-time, and this choice is often seen as incompatible with career progression. There are some roles that require full-time work, but many, many more that don’t. Yet employers are blocked to the idea that flexibility and productivity can go hand-in-hand. So women take a step back, change job, change career or drop out of the workforce altogether – sometimes by choice, sometimes reluctantly. If being in a top job is seen as something that requires a sixty hour week, then most mothers of small kids will hang back. That’s a barrier to female progression that gender quotas can’t resolve.
In Norway, gender quotas were put in place in 2003, stipulating that 40% of boards must be made up of women. And indeed, as is often quoted, this has been successful – 40% of board members are female. How did they do it? With extremely harsh penalties – non-compliant companies faced forced liquidation. With the threat of being shut down, it’s not suprising that Norway’s employers meet the quota.
But, only 3% of board chairs are held by women. In the US, where there are no gender quotas, it’s 5%. What does this say? It says that where companies are forced to follow rules, or risk being shut down, they do so – to the letter. But this hasn’t led to any great increase in numbers of women in CEO positions in Norway, for which there is no legislation.
The success or not of gender quotas, it seems, is also linked to culture. In a very interesting study published in the Harvard Business Review, it was found that “tighter” cultures – tight meaning the degree to which a culture’s norms are clear and likely to be enforced by authorities through the use of sanctions – were more likely to accept gender quotas. Looser cultures are less open to quotas, but may be more likely to adapt progressive approaches to equality organically.
And what about all the women who don’t want to be CEO or on the board? This is of course merely anecdotal, but most of the women I speak to every day are not necessarily looking to run the company. They want a fulfilling and flexible career – something that allows them to learn and be challenged, but without compromising more than necessary on family life. I don’t know if gender quotas can fix that – we need flexibility, and we shouldn’t be written off just because we have flexibility.
As someone who believes passionately in the right of every woman to have the same career options as men – as someone who believes that in an ideal world, women who are mothers should be able to choose to work full-time or work part-time or stay at home, I want to believe in gender quotas.
I want to believe in something proactive and progressive that aims to increase the numbers of women in senior positions. But so far, I’m not convinced. I’m still open to the idea – I just need here a stronger argument. There are many pros, but to me, it seems there are more cons.
Perhaps rather than strict gender quotas with heavy penalties – effectively forcing companies to promote women, what we need is a softer approach. Something greater than what we have now for sure, but more carrot than stick; targets over regulations. Setting down objectives that companies must try to meet, must report on, and must explain if not met. Leading employers to see that this is the way forward, and that if they’re not in, they need to say why. Communicating and encouraging, rather than forcing and punishing.
I think (at least for now) I’m getting off the fence.
With huge thanks to Alex Kotsos from Mumager who sent me many links on gender quotas for this post. She hasn’t talked me around to her way of thinking but I’m still open to being convinced 🙂