Breaking The Glass Ceiling: In Defense Of The Women’s Quota

Norway has it, France wants it, and Germany is fighting about it: the female quota in the boardrooms of major corporations. In fact, the recent debate in Germany once again started a discussion about the pros and cons of the quota system in the labor market. Back in 2001, Germany introduced a voluntary quota to increase the number of female executives in companies. Ten years later the results of this ‘’measure’’ turned out to be dismal with little to no progress:

“Women currently hold only 3.2 percent of executive board positions in the 200 largest companies. When the circle is narrowed to the 30 companies listed on the German DAX stock index and the 100 largest companies, the proportion of women falls to 2.2 percent. Put differently, of the 490 executive board members in these companies, 11 are women.” (Beyer and Voigt, Der Spiegel, 2011 )

this is what a quota woman looks like

These numbers, for a Western nation forty years after the Women’s Liberation Movement, are simply outrageous, and chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to “give companies another chance” is a slap in the face to all the women who have been pursuing careers for years and everyone fighting for gender equality. The voluntary system is obviously not working, so what are Merkel’s concerns?

The quota debate has sparked heated discussions, even within the feminist community. Needless to say, it is a sensitive topic that involves fundamental political convictions just as much as the individual’s understanding of the meanings of justice and equality. It is the age-old conflict between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.

Naturally, in a free-market economy such as ours, the introduction of quota systems into the business world seems misguided. Classic liberal thinking (in the economic sense) is based on the idea of meritocracy which assumes that                 “[d]ifferential status and differential income are based on technical skills and higher education” and that “these high-scoring individuals, no matter where they are in society, would be brought to the top in order to make the best use of their talents” (Daniel Bell, 1973). However, these principles are based on idealistic assumptions that fail to “account for the fact that society itself, through a pattern of selective discrimination against members of certain groups, may be partially responsible for whether specific members of the groups are deemed to be talented. In other words, if over many decades society excludes the members of certain ethnic or sexual groups from educational and economic opportunities which are accorded to others, it ought not to be too surprising that members of the social groups who have been discriminated against are now deemed to be generally less talented than those who have had the advantage of superior training and economic opportunity. […] [O]ne can see that the philosophical individualism of the argument for meritocracy fails to account for the social realities of the world itself.” (Conrad, 1976)

a woman's path to the top?

In short, equality of opportunity is a legislative term, not a socially given fact. In the past, affirmative action policies have been implemented in order to counteract the ongoing discrimination of certain groups of people. So why not the female quota?

To claim that women are no longer discriminated against is a naive and wrong assumption. With 60 percent of all graduates of business and economics programs being women, how come they are not being represented in the boardroom? Of course, not all of these women will end up having the necessary qualifications; some of them will get caught up in having a family or are simply not interested in pursuing a high-stakes career. However, these reasons should be all the more alarming. If we don’t manage to create acceptable working conditions for half of the population, we’re clearly doing something wrong. A lot still needs to be done, but a quota is a start and an incentive for women to go and grasp the economic and political power that they deserve.

I understand that this is a luxury problem. After all, this quota concerns perhaps 1% of women who would have access to these positions. But a quota is always a sign, a signal to young girls and women that they, too, have the right and the ability to participate at the top of our society, and also, perhaps, the start of a development that would render quota systems more socially acceptable, at least while they’re still necessary. After all, there are many more areas that could use diversity; for example certain academic fields and the media, to name a few.

But what would be the consequences of such a course of action? Would it not result in reverse discrimination? Well, that depends on how you look at it. A quota of 40% of women executives could still result in 60% of male executives – doesn’t sound much like discrimination to me. It just means that men would have to give up a part of their privilege; a price they would have to pay for a more equal society. The idea is to fill positions with women who are equally qualified as men. Naturally, this would give women applying for these positions an advantage over men; ergo the same advantage in reverse that men have profited from for decades.

this is what the patriarchy looks like

Whether or not women in the boardrooms will increase profits for the respective companies, I cannot say. Most likely there will be just as many bad or brilliant female execs as there are male. Only the future can tell, that is if we allow the quota to be implemented. Circumstances rarely improve by doing nothing. Women did not liberate themselves by waiting around and giving society “another chance” to change. They fought for their rights and they demanded laws to protect these rights. The quota law would protect their right to adequate representation in a society that has yet to learn to acknowledge this right.


11 responses to “Breaking The Glass Ceiling: In Defense Of The Women’s Quota

  1. This is a really nice summary of the whole debate. I particularly like how you introduce the notion of equality of outcome, which really is core of the question why a female quota (possibly even a diversity quota) makes sense.

    Thanks for this blog post and nice blog – moore food for my feed reader!

    • Because they do not ask for raises. NPR just did an excellent piece on this- I suggest giving it a read/listen. Plus, requiring gender ratios just lets people slide on to places they haven’t earned. Trust me, it just makes more paperwork and more considerations “oh gee, is our ratio up to quo? Well, we have amy and tom, and amy deserves it more, but our mandated 50% ratio male 50% female ratio would be thrown off, so let’s promote tom.”

      Doesn’t sound much fun, does it?

      • @asdf: can you send a link for the NPR thing?
        i wouldn’t say that quota women haven’t earned their position. the idea is to have equally deserving candidates, but favouring the women. if women would be properly trained and widely employed to begin with, companies would have a larger pool of talent to choose from. but of course, women need to be encouraged, too. my example of the current situation goes like this: “oh gee, amy and tom both want the job and amy is even a little more qualified than tom, but darn it she’s 28 and probably ready to pop out a baby any minute. plus we all know that women are too emotional, and our boardroom consists of 90 % percent men, so she wouldn’t feel comfortable anyway, so let’s take tom.”

        That doesn’t sound like fun to me.

  2. We should have quotas for the dirty jobs like construction too, women aren’t really pulling their fair share of the dirty hard jobs, quotas in teaching too since that prejudges against males.

  3. A quota is not equality.

    Equality is when a man and a women both have the same opportunity. Men simply tend to be hungrier and more competitive for these top tier executive positions and there are many more men gunning for these positions than there are women. So if you have 20 men gunning for a CFO position and 2 women, for a women to get the position she has to out compete and be better qualified than 21 other people, 20 of them men. She has to have just as much work experience (not easy if she took off years to raise a child, which is her choice, no one made her do it, she doesn’t have a right to come back to work and be at the same position as those who didn’t take 3 years off) and she has to have that masters in accounting or be an MBA, CFA, CPA or whatever and so on. Outcompeting that many people is not easy at that level where everyone being considered has 20+ years of experience and lots of education and overcoming that competition is gonna be unlikely. It’s simple probability and since most of the qualified applicants are men it’s going to be much more likely that a man gets the post.

    Forcing a women into the position over a more qualified applicant simply because he happens to have a penis and she happens to have a vagina is not equality. That’s discrimination. Not to mention what are you gonna do about people who have had sex changes and so on. Does their application count as that of a man or a women. Even more opportunities for discrimination.

    True equality is looking at the years of experience, levels of education, and ability to lead and do the job and make a decision based on who is most qualified not based on ones anatomical parts. Are some guys going to get elected to the board simply because both applicants are supremely qualified but if they pick a guy instead of a women the board members don’t have to worry about getting sued for sexual harassment every time they make a joke. Sure I have no doubt that happens, but that doesn’t make it okay to be discriminatory in reverse and force women to be picked for the position instead of men.

    Again that is not equality. Equality is when both women and men have access to the same opportunities and are allowed to take part in the same education and work environment and so on(controlling for life choices (pregnancy, taking time off, work ethic, grades etc)).

  4. the only quota system that might be feasible and not outright bs would be if you gave positions to people in proportion to the number or qualified applicants.

    Lets say you have 10 board positions.

    And you have 100 very qualified applicants. 90 are men and 10 are women.

    Why should the board be split 5 men and 5 women.

    if you were gonna do a quota system it would make more sense to do it in proportion to the applicants to reflect the ration of men to women.

    So in this case the quota would be 9 men, and 1 women.

    Still though a quota is discriminatory because if there are 10 men in those 90 men who are all more qualified than any of those 10 women then no women should be chosen and the board should pick all 10 of those men as members.

    Conversely if those 10 women are all more qualified then those 90 men then all 10 seats on the board should go to all 10 women and there would be no men on the board. The positions should go to the most qualified candidate regardless of anatomy.

  5. @Magda: Thank you very much!
    @Ashton: what an interesting compilation… of women who are NOT feminists. sorry, but this video is out of context.
    @yoDawg: you think cleaning ladies are not doing a hard job? btw, i would love to see more male teachers in elementary schools.

  6. @anon: as I was stating in my text, equality of opportunity is not necessarily a given. in the case of men and women it clearly isn’t and your comment is proof of that. you generalize about what men are supposedly better at and you don’t think women are as capable because they might have children. guess what? male execs have children, too. why don’t they make “the choice” to take three years off work? for every successful executive with kids there is a spouse or a partner who supports them; ideally they support each other.
    as for your suggestion regarding a proportional quota, i do think it makes sense in certain areas. in your example, which i don’t think is representative generally, you suggest a 10% quota. however, in germany even 10% is too much to ask for, apparently…

  7. UniStudent

    I’m writing about meritocracy, discrimination and the gender gap for my dissertation at University. I would argue that the divide between equality of outcome and opportunity is not clear-cut, insomuch as increasing the representation of women at the upper echelons of organisations can challenge stereotypes about their capabilities, reduce gender discrimination and ultimately help to level the playing field. What are your views?

    Also, regarding the point that was made about hiring men and women – I may have misinterpreted it, but surely organisations which are already dominated by men will have to make a point of systematically hiring women over men so that their gender balance is redressed (if quotas are imposed). Do you feel that this is likely to be the case?

    I hope that you (or anyone) can get back to me. I realise the sun may have set on this debate, but diffent opinions on these matters will help to shape my thinking on the subject.

    • Thank you for your comment and good luck with the dissertation.
      As for your first point, I don’t mean to say that equality of outcome and opportunity are mutually exclusive but I do believe that as political views they will strongly influence whether or not one favors the quota. As I tried to show, equality of opportunity is, for the most part, an individual’s right protected by law (at least in Western Europe and the U.S.), but it doesn’t always translate into real life. A quota system cannot change that; it can never guarantee equality of opportunity for everyone, but as you yourself pointed out, “increasing the representation of women at the upper echelons of organisations can challenge stereotypes about their capabilities, reduce gender discrimination and ultimately help to level the playing field”. That, in my opinion, is the true benefit of introducing a quota law, which, of course, would only need to be temporary.
      Regarding your second point of hiring women over men (I assume you mean even if women are less qualified): I think it depends on the company. Of course, this is likely to happen to some extent. However, if a company has a really small pool of qualified women to choose from, they might want to ask themselves why that is the case and take appropriate measures. In fact, not only do the companies have to reconsider certain things, but society as a whole. How do we structure labor? Is our society family friendly? Why is it that women are still considered to be the primary care-takers of children and household? A quota system can urge society to rethink gender roles and approaches to labor in general and that is a good thing in my book.

  8. Thanks for a great article and the thought provoking comments. I’m just doing a presentation at Uni with the theme of how Ethical Issues are treated differently in developed and developing countries. My sub-theme is the Women’s Quota in Business. Does anybody have any idea if this issue is discussed at all in the developing world?