Gender Quotas? Considering its place

Debated globally with varying opinions and perspectives, a question of the gender quota has been a key element of Australia’s political debate in 2019. With the year seeing state and federal elections, as well as the defection and resigning of some senior females of Government, our attention has once again been brought to consider an implementation of gender quotas, whether that be in our political parties, our parliament, and for the private sector. This article hopes to examine some key arguments on both sides of the debate to consider whether quotas align with our liberal democracy.

Gender quotas are an efficient and effective way of changing the number of females on a company board, in business leadership, in a political party, in parliament, and wherever else a gender quota may be imposed. Such quotas are implemented and enforced with the intention to correct existing discrimination and unconscious bias, and more broadly to compensate for historical inequality. We can see that quotas are well-intentioned, as they aim to eradicate the closed and established male networks that tend to reinforce unconscious gender bias. A quota to break this system therefore expands the candidate pool to more women and creates a greater awareness of diversity. Companies that have enforced quotas, such as Norwegian companies that had to comply with a 40% female representation on boards, report improvements in decision making and board governance. The hope is also that women on boards can mentor other women to encourage them to seek higher leadership positions. 

With this theory in mind, there have been calls for gender quotas in our political parties, with the core position being that parliament is meant to be a representation of society, and therefore should be 50% female and 50% male in order to accurately represent our demographics. Many Members of Parliament, media figures, and the public are calling for gender quotas, as Australia has fallen from its peak of 15th in the world for female parliamentary representation in 1997 under the Howard Government to 50th in the world today. Evidently there need to be drastic changes in our female parliamentary representation – but are quotas the only answer?

Quotas may be the quickest fix to the problem, however there are questions of its effectiveness and its contradictions with certain key principles upon which our democracy is founded. The first of these principles is that as a liberal democracy, we are committed to meritocracy. It is unmeritocratic to consider someone differently because of their gender, and can often be seen as condescending, patronising and tokenistic, as it takes the focus away from the female’s qualifications and experience. We do not need a solution that plays on identity politics, with a potential for further micro-quotas. However, assuming that we have a perfect meritocracy now would imply that males dominate political parties, parliaments and boards simply because they’re superior candidates to women. This is obviously false, as we know that women are equal in their capabilities to males. Therefore improving female representation without imposing a quota relies on a commitment to improving the functioning of a society aiming to be a perfect meritocracy, which it is not yet. There are historical reasons for current imbalances, mainly the past’s discrimination against women being involved in politics and business leadership, meaning that today we are (very) slowly balancing out. We don’t need the help of quotas to engineer this change, as whilst quotas may change the number of women in leadership, they are ineffective in altering an organisation’s culture and the structural barriers that women face. In 2007, Norway introduced 40% female representation on all boards, however twelve years on, this quota hasn’t changed pay disparity or underrepresentation in the lower levels of the companies. This indicates that while quotas fix an image problem, they don’t address underlying discrimination and cannot enforce a change in attitude regarding the value of women in the workforce.

With the efficacy and desirability of quotas being questionable, we need to turn to alternatives that focus on working to create a truly meritocratic society that revolves around the philosophy of equality of opportunity, rather than an engineered equality of outcome. Companies and organisations need to address the issues and barriers that prevent women from putting their hands up through initiatives such as needs-based support, substantiative targets, targeted recruiting, mentorship and sponsorship amongst other alternatives. Whilst a 50/50 gender representation in political parties and parliament is desirable, the claims that a party or parliament that isn’t 50/50 is undemocratic as it doesn’t truly reflect societal demographics assumes that only women can represent women, placing the burden on women to act upon gender equality. In reality, the support of both genders is needed to enact genuine change.

Other areas of reform aimed at improving meritocracy have inadvertently improved female parliamentary representation. The UK Conservative Party has demonstrated this with their party reforms in recent years, and initiatives designed to produce the best possible candidate, which has seen a greater representation of women in the party. In 2005, the Conservatives began trialling party-supporter primaries for their party members that would run for parliament, rather than membership-only plebiscite voting. Party-supporters voting on the best possible candidate saw the number of female MPs increase from 8% of the Conservatives after the 2005 General Election, to 16% in 2010, to 21% in the most recent election in 2017. At the same time, under David Cameron’s leadership, the party started using a database filled with potential candidates that were being identified and mentored by the party leadership in order to put forward the best candidates in the primaries. Whilst the Conservative Party is evidently still far away from equal representation, they achieved significant change without compromising the democratic value of a meritocracy. This isn’t to say that similar change would produce the same results in Australia, rather this is just one of the interesting scenarios that highlight how innovative reform can improve gender equality in line with the meritocratic principles of a liberal democracy.  

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis of all possible advantages and disadvantages of imposing a gender quota, however highlights some of the pertinent issues. Being opposed to gender quotas doesn’t make one opposed to increasing female representation. Rather, it is a belief in the inherent value and capability of women without a helping hand. It is a belief in creating a truly meritocratic society that would employ, promote, and celebrate women in all fields.

Image: Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet in 1989.

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