Gender Quotas: A Zero-Sum Game?

Gender Quotas: A Zero-Sum Game?


These days, we see a rise in the debate regarding gender quotas in business. The recent California Senate Bill, requiring every publicly held corporation in California to appoint a minimum of one woman to its board of directors by the end of 2019, inflamed global discussions questioning the purpose and effectiveness of quotas. In this article we would like to highlight the main arguments for and against this practice, and introduce a fresh approach to the application of gender quotas in relation to workplace gender equality.

Opposing Arguments

Voices disagreeing with gender quotas allege that this action will lead to companies struggling to find qualified women, the promotion of unqualified female employees, or worst, women being stigmatised as unqualified tokens. These voices also claim that gender quotas mean seats are being ‘unfairly taken from men’, creating another form of workplace discrimination. According to research, since gender quotas are an external prompt, they lead to psychological resistance, which might reduce men employees’ engagement with gender equality in the workplace.

Furthermore, objecting arguments also refer to Norway where a gender quota law entered into force in 2008, but even though the number of women directors is higher, any trickle-down effects are still difficult to detect at this time.

Supporting Arguments

On the contrary, advocates of gender quotas argue that the problem is not a lack of qualified women leaders but the limitation and biases of the candidate pool and recruitment methodologies. Furthermore, research shows that at 40% representation, a group moves away from tokenism to a critical mass influence and therefore the quotas should, in fact, be higher.

Also, according to a McKinsey & Co report, based on current trends, it will take 100 years to achieve gender equality in the C-suite. Therefore, gender quotas supporters emphasize the need for an external ‘shock to the system’ to expedite the roadmap to gender equality.

Finally, going back to the Norway case, as the added value of women in the boardroom became evident over time, mainly, an enhancement in corporate governance and an increase in financial performance, the initial resistance to the external imposition decreased, as many directors admit to changing their minds.

We at Gender Rise find great value in this debate as it illuminates the undercurrent assumption that quotas are a zero sum game. While opposing arguments assume that by increasing women’s participation, power, resources and jobs are taken away from men, supporting opinions assert that the application of gender quotas is the main tool for achieving gender equality. We see both assumptions as inherently problematic.

In line with Gender Rise’s approach to gender as a social structure we all interact with in different ways, we believe that standing alone, gender quotas cannot end gender inequality. In order to be effective, quotas must be integrated into a more comprehensive gender process, and holistic company policy, benefiting everyone.

To establish a holistic gender approach, these are our recommendations to board members, managers and HR staff:

  • Educate yourself on the various impacts gender has on your business.
  • Undertake a transparent, consultative and need-based approach with your employees.
  • Identify key gender-related issues.
  • Revise your recruitment and training procedures.
  • Strategise your short, mid and long-term gender policies and incorporate them into your wider business plan.
  • Systematically set clear targets and monitor change.
  • Be prepared to encounter difficulties – structural change takes time.

When incorporated as part of a wider comprehensive gender-based process, quotas can in fact be a valuable tool used both directly and indirectly. By learning the various ways gender impacts our lives and our businesses, what will become evident are all the benefits a company stands to gain by committing to gender equality. When the goal of gender equality and diversity becomes a sustainability issue, quotas are no longer perceived as an external imposition, instead they serve an intrinsic conscious choice, for the benefit of all.

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