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 )
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)
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.
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.