Gender Quotas – Problem or Solution?

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 Office Mum

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.

Office Mum Women Gender Quotas

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.

Divisive Workplace

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.

Childcare costs, Ireland’s maternalistic family leave policies, the mommy-track and presenteeism are all huge barriers to female progression – it’s not just about gender quotas.

Carrot or Stick Office Mum

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.

Mommy-track office mum

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.

Working Mother - Office Mum
Yes, I got tired of searching for free “working mother” stock photos so I made my own one 


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 🙂

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14 thoughts on “Gender Quotas – Problem or Solution?”

  1. While the issue of gender quotas is relevant to mothers, it is equally relevant to all women, irrespective of their family status. I would be jittery if it were to be considered wholly, or predominantly, in that context. In fact, I think it’s dangerous.

    A lot of relevant points here. The countries were it has proven successful have a systemic approach to building and sustaining a culture of equality and engagement. Issues of civic responsibility and political representation are not bound up in the merits of gender quotas in these terms only, but are also underpinned by an evolving national political philosophy, identity, and duty as citizens, all of which informs their education system. Ireland falls badly down in this regard. In that context, it’s becomes a more subtly broader question that equality as we generally understand it, but about state responsibility to ensure legislators and decision-making comprise the diversity of the electorate.

    Ireland has previous form in tinkering with democracy in all the wrong ways through political dynasties and safeguarding pathways to politics for a pampered elite. The notion of democracy is never pure anyway.

    Whatever about private boards, and private companies, I personally think the immediate responsibility falls to the state to lead the charge. That will have to include an end to the culture of cosy political appointments to these boards and more transparency.

    I agree that whatever is introduced will have to be combined with a commitment to flexibility for all in terms of working hours, leave of absence etc. This to include mothers, fathers, and those who wish to pursue other avenues in life that are just as valid as having children.

    Fingers crossed!

    1. You’re right – it definitely applies to all women, not just mothers. I do tend to focus on mothers. In my experience, the glass ceiling appears only after having kids, but that’s based on real-life examples and people I know. I don’t doubt that there are also example of indirect and subconscious discriminations (and possibly direct too) against women who are not mothers.
      And yes, there is absolutely a need for flexibility for parents and carers and anyone who just wants to do something other than work fifty hours a week – I’m a firm believer in that too.
      I still can’t see gender quotas (in the pure “stick” approach) being a good thing here in Ireland – in business I mean. In politics, yes, I think it’s a great idea. I till be interesting to see how that plays out. On state boards – that’s something I hadn’t considered treating separately – I need to think about that!

      1. I think we all bring a lot of experience to bear on the debate. I wouldn’t downplay the barriers working parents come up against, but I would in no way minimise the discrimination, glass ceiling and sexism (overt and covert) which affect a great deal of women who are not. The upshot of that assumed equation that it is those without children fair much fair much better. This is simply not the case in terms of wages, promotion and recognition of worth. Furthermore, their priorities for work/life balance may differ from the conventional family structure, but are valid nonetheless.

        As a working mother myself, I’m in favour legislation and working place policies taking cognisance of the distinctions of family life, but in tandem with the focus broadening to ‘family’ and not a premium of the rights of others. Family rights in the workplace need to be balanced with those others. Be it those who wish to take a career break for study reasons, or travel, or those who have responsibilities to look after ill relatives. I get the context of mothers, and the historical tendencies for the dilemma to fall on the lap of mothers, but I don’t think we have to be taken hostage by that status quo either or a slave to history. It doesn’t make sense to me personally to see it exclusively on those terms.

        Good on you for starting the debate.

        1. I think it’s two things: I definitely agree that flex has to be an option for everyone – I have an article on that point that I wrote for Lifeshifter but can’t access it now – will post it here this evening. “Their priorities for work/ life balance may differ from conventional family structure but are valid nonetheless” – that sums it up perfectly. I am one million percent in agreement on that.
          But as a separate and related point, I do think that mothers face bigger obstacles at work than women who are not mothers (or women who are mothers but are able to/ happy to work long hours) It goes back to presenteeism and the assumption that being prseent in the office means being better at your job and more suitable for promotion. This is a barrier to parents who can’t/ don’t want to put in long hours.
          I accept your speed typing and any typos, if you accept my extreme exhaustion brought about by a night spent comforting a coughing toddler. It’s highly possible I’m not making any sense at all right now 🙂

          1. Fair enough!

            I don’t know anyone personally with a desire to work long hours, irrespective of their family status. I take your point on presenteeism, but it doesn’t apply to all sectors. And the discrimination against women runs deeper and more complex that the case and debate for gender quotas (or not) allow.

            I think each of us could present a sizeable amount of anedoctal evidence to support a variety of viewpoints and a corresponding consensus. I’d validate them all – but with the caveat that we must all take responsibility to fight for balanced rights, if we want to claim them for ourselves and our families. We, as working mothers, also bear some responsibility to change the course of the discussion, and not be bound by whatever consensus fits our viewpoint best. There are large swathes of women (and men) excluded from on-line discussion, or any discussion at all. So whilst on-line debate is important, is it also has its limitations in presenting a wide-angled view. Crude categorising can cut so many ways.

            I find myself agreeing with many of the points you have to make, but I would prefer a nuanced view around groups of women rather than blunt categorising. We can agree to disagree or disagree to disagree hehe.

            That’s probably all I can wring out it today. Over to someone else to take the floor… c’mon wimmin..


          2. It is true – online debate only covers the viewpoint of so many people. Or in this case, you and me 🙂

  2. I really like this piece Andrea and it’s particularly fitting for me right now as I come out of my “maternity leave” period and look at the (few) options in front of me in terms of returning to work. I agree that quotas may actually harm women in some ways (like how you say we may be looked at as being in a role because of quotas while men will always be there by merit).

    Maybe this isn’t enough, but I wonder what would happen if we followed the Swedish model of shared parental leave? On the one hand, women are so lucky that they are afforded as much time off as they are in Ireland (I can’t imagine having a baby in the US and returning to work after 8 weeks). But in Sweden, men can use some of the parental leave to be home with the baby as well. If men could up and leave the workplace for extended periods of time to focus on family life – would that shift perceptions on the gap they’d leave at work? Would there be a new understanding of what it means to leave work and be home with the kids all day?

    I think gender quotas alone are not enough. You can’t just say women have to fill X% of roles or else it’s not fair. There has to be other ways of levelling the playing field – and not just in terms of benefiting women. I’m sure most men out there would enjoy time off to bond with babies too.
    Nessa R. recently posted…WIN A FREE NEWBORN PHOTO SESSIONMy Profile

    1. Yep, totally agree Nessa. If there was shared parental leave (non-transferable paid parental leave for men, therefore incentivising them to take it), I think men being at home for periods of time would be more normal, and the distinction between male employees and female employees (who are parents) would lessen.
      Best of luck with your return to work!

  3. Your blog entry expands on several points about affirmative action (policies that support people who belong to specific groups) as seen through gender quota statutes designed for preferential hiring and promotion of females in the workforce (The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, 2013). The purpose of affirmative action is to amend social injustices that have caused employment disadvantages for specific groups of people (The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, 2013).

    You have expressed that the role of women and men in the workplace has been historically unequal. Not only is this seen in the proportion of women in fulltime work, but also so in the proportion of women in managerial and directive positions.

    Your blog specifically references western countries as they relate to you, however this is very much a global issue as I’m sure many are aware. These gender inequalities are historical to many cultures where there has been a long standing norm or persuasion form influential leaders to segregate roles for men and women (Davidson & Burke, 2011). Though in many countries laws may not pertain to these segregations – the pull of cultural norms creates barriers that twenty-first century women often cannot push through, the so called “glass ceiling” (Barreto, Ryan & Schmitt, 2009). So the question arises – how can these barriers be broken down? Are gender quota policies the answer to progress women in the workplace?

    The pros and cons that you have listed in your blog point out very valid outcomes of affirmative action policies. Quotas create a starting point towards the journey to equality but in reality does it resolve the root issue that social norms are biased towards men leading in the world of employment?

    In response to your point regarding divisive workplaces, yes, the justifiability of affirmative action promoting gender fairness is nullified when an outcome of workplace quotas is immediate reverse discrimination (The Open Polytechnic, 2013). Men – who have been previously advantaged, become disadvantaged for the promotion of women. Affirmative actions are motivated by discontent with irrational discriminations (Shaw, 1988). To advance a disadvantaged group by bringing deprivation against another is itself an act of moral questionability. How could reverse discrimination resolve a problem of discrimination?

    Potential issues of merit and self-doubt afforded by females hired where there are gender quota policies are definite objections. Nagel (as cited in Goff, 1976, p. 82-84) expresses that affirmative action can damage an appointed candidates confidence. This can reveal itself in different ways in the workplace. A women might overcompensate and work harder to prove her worth at the neglect of personal, social and family needs (Kay, 2014). Or she may withdraw from work responsibilities out of a fear of failure – fulfilling the societal perspective of her incapability (Kay, 2014). Where appointment of prospective employees is made by merit there is no such fear through ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Implementing limits on an applicant’s admissibility changes the nature of the hiring process from focusing on finding the best person for the job, to finding the women for the job. Historically women have had reduced education and promotion opportunities so where quotas force employers to hire women where a women has not had appropriate experiences – their capability will be in question. If promotion and hiring is based on gender not merit, a number of women may meet the required performance standards. Discriminatory subtractions may need to be made to the level of eligibility required for some positions to enable females to qualify for employment.

    This leads to a further point for objection – not hiring based on merit can create inefficiencies (Nigel, as cited in Goff, 1976). Business owners utilise available resources and capital and aim for efficient and effective processes for an improved profit margin. Profitable businesses drive the embetterment of national economy and the quality of life by making opportunities for the unemployed and untrained (Anielski, 2007). To improve productivities it is in a business owner’s best interest to hire the best people. If enforcing a quota policy during their recruiting processes causes them to employ someone who is comparatively of less merit – will this not result in inefficiencies that could grossly affect the competitive position of a business? As in the case of Norway, if there are strict penalties for noncompliance employers are given no choice but to hire a women of less capability than face force liquidation. Improving output and the bottom line brings dispersed prosperity, hence the sanctioning of gender quotas must be considered against the inefficiencies that it could cause.

    The purpose of affirmative action is to amend past injustices. Gender quotas have been a policy implemented in certain countries to affirm opportunities for women in the workplace where there have been previous biases. The listed cons and more prove that these policies are known to have adverse effects – on a personal level there are the wanderings a women’s worthiness; on a corporate level there are potential divisions and inefficiencies; and on a societal level there are the impacts of businesses having decreased profitabilities.

    According to Kantian moral theory it is the employers and the Governments moral responsibility to seek resolution for past discrepancies in the employment and promotion of women. An analysis based on Virtue ethics would agree that it is ideal for proactive action to be taken to establish equality. Nonetheless it has been clearly established that the cons outweigh the pros, hence an utilitarian would opt against gender quotas to produce the greatest happiness and least harm (The Open Polytechnic, 2013). But, I would have to disagree. Despite the legitimacy of these listed adverse effects they all leave in mind one question – are these temporary discomforts worth it? Undoubtedly – yes.

    Years of ingrained social norms have created a near imperishable barrier for the advancement of a woman’s career. Yes during the process of improvement these first change agent women leading the turn of society will endure various hardships. But it’s vital to note that policies which improves the neutrality of gender employment ratios will work towards bettering the quality of life for the women of the future. Is that not the intention of affirmative action? To redress past discretions and create a better future. It is agreed that softer policy terms will reduce the negative impacts of quotas but ultimately society must always begin somewhere in its journey towards equality. Looking forward a century there is hope that the root issue of gender bias will be one that is merely a historical topic; the turning point for which was the sanctioned affirmation of women in the workplace.

  4. Hi Andrea,

    My name is Isabelle, and I am a year 11 student in Adelaide, Australia. I have thoroughly enjoy reading your blog, particularly this post. I found it particularly interesting how the quotas in Norway have not affected the number of women in middle management roles, despite their success at the board level, definitely food for thought. As part of my year 11 studies I am completing a research project on gender quotas, and I have found this post in particular to be very useful for my research (for more information you can look at my blog, To follow up on my usage of this source, and to further my research, I would love to ask you a couple of questions. Furthermore, if you would consent to it, I would like to reference your answers in my final report, as I feel that you provide a perspective that is highly pertinent to my research. You can contact me through my email, blog, or by reply to this comment.

    Thanks in advance,
    Isabelle G

  5. Gender quotas are disrespectful and degrading; in the real world they dont promote equal opportunites, but the opposite; they are plain unfair with men and ultimately counter-productive for women.

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