Do gender quotas actually work?
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Growing up in the early 2000s, I’m ashamed to say that I was no exception to the gendered ideals married to the world of work. In my six year old brain, it was simple: doctors were male, nurses female. Teachers were women, and scientists were men. And importantly, the boss was always a man.
I suppose it’s no surprise that my mind drew these conclusions, given that it was reflective of my microscopic experience of the world. Most of my school teachers were women, and my family GP was in fact a man. It was only as I grew up that I began to unpick these assumptions in my brain and rewire the way I engaged with the world.
By the time I graduated university and commenced my career, I was angry and frustrated, fed up with the barriers that continued to obstruct women from professional success. This sentiment was only furthered as I had my first interaction with various company boards.
LinkedIn lied. It promised me a colourful, diverse selection of leaders, working together to ensure psychological safety and flexible work and other fun phrases that mean nothing in the real world. Instead, I was presented with a group of incredibly mediocre white men who were, respectfully, passed their use-by date. They made animal noises in board meetings, referred to their female counterparts as “sheilas”, and refused to attend if breakfast wasn’t supplied. Oh, and they didn’t read the board papers. Obviously. Why would that be a useful activity? No, they would gladly arrive wholly unprepared and contribute nothing but a few ill-mannered jokes and criticisms.
This board in question had a gender quota, and I cannot tell you how disappointed I was to find that the women too, were equally dismal. Rather than presenting as bright, shining ambassadors for women in leadership, they were impolite, apathetic and with a shockingly disproportionate ego to ability ratio.
I recognise that it is, of course, unfair to expect all female figureheads to model the perfect woman at all times. It’s exhausting and unreasonable to have to constantly convince everyone of your own merit – and by extension, the merit of your entire gender. Particularly, mind you, while men can often skate through without question, batting consistently below average only to be presented with opportunities women would’ve fought tooth and nail for. Despite knowing this, the stark incompetence of these female board members did cause me to sheepishly question the efficacy of gender quotas.
Robert Strohfeldt is an Australian advertising executive and, unsurprisingly, has strong opinions on the topic. He claims that quotas result in tokenism and eventually, resentment as people who are less talented, or qualified, or both, are appointed to positions simply to ensure “diversity”.
This argument is all well and good, but it does assume that those currently in positions of power are qualified to be there. And look, you don’t need to search very hard to find that answer - unless mooing was listed in the board member position description, I have a compelling example right here. Or Donald Trump, a man elected as United States President despite his staggering lack of experience and meaningful understanding of the nuances of international affairs or diplomatic processes. The truth is, this is such a common occurrence that it almost doesn’t warrant comment anymore.
It does, however, point to a problem I hadn’t considered. What are the consequences of having incompetent women in those positions? I mean, look at my own reaction - a self-identifying feminist is the first to question the concept.
Thankfully, as with most things, Harvard thought of this before me. One of their recent studies concluded that whilst quotas do not necessarily change people’s immediate gender biases, the downstream effect of the quota does have more positive, longer-term effects. So regardless of how capable the woman in question is, if she was selected to meet a quota, people will already have their minds made up.
Yeah, that checks out. A single squat cannot give you a fat ass. A single woman cannot change long-ingrained gender norms. It takes small, consistent effort. The more that people see women in positions of leadership, the more accustomed and normalised it will become, regardless of their competence - just as it has for men. As a result (hopefully) over time, their expectations and attitudes will shift.
Now, yes, we could wait. We could wait until this happens organically. We could wait and wait and wait, and nothing would change because the power structures that maintain this system would still be in place. Why would you change a system you are directly benefiting from? You wouldn’t. Clearly.
History tells us that changing societal attitudes is a slow, torturous process and not likely to happen without intervention. In this case, it involves appointing women to positions they likely otherwise would have missed out on, simply as a by-product of their gender.
Regrettably, some of those women appointed may be lacklustre in their contribution to the cause. They may be disinterested and underwhelming and entirely hopeless. But it is important to remember that men have been ticking those boxes for all of eternity without anyone blinking an eye. Sometimes, unsuitable people are elected as leaders. Sometimes they’re women, and often they’re men. Yes, the end goal is to have qualified and competent people elected purely on merit; but let’s not pretend that introducing quotas is undermining it.