Tag Archives: women’s quota

My Quota Memo

Just in time for International Women’s Day, the discussion about quotas for women is back with a vengeance. The EU is once again pushing for quotas in boardrooms and in Germany, journalists are demanding equal representation in the media. Naturally, the news is all over it, printing opinion pieces everywhere, which has prompted me to gather all the thoughts and ideas about the quota that seem relevant to me. None of these ideas are mine; I have simply collected them from articles, blog posts and comments, in order to weed out the ones that continuously derail the discussion. None of this is new, but I figured it cannot hurt to be repeated as much as possible.

1. When we talk about the women’s quota, we are already making the first mistake, because generally what is proposed is a gender-based quota. A 40% quota law could  mean that at least 40% must be either male or female. The fact, that such a law would primarily promote women is the sad underlying truth of the whole debate.

2. A 30%, 40% or 50% quota that promotes women would still effectively result in a 70%, 60% or 50% quota of men. Considering that men and women make up about half of the population each, how exactly does this translate to “discrimination against men”?

3. Quotas are supposed to benefit the disadvantaged, not to increase their disadvantages. Demanding quotas for women in less desirable occupations is such a lame argument, I shouldn’t even be mentioning here, but it seems to come up every single time. Firstly, some sectors, such as the public cleaning service in Berlin, already have a quota system, even a successful one. Secondly, men and women are already fairly equally represented in low paid, exploitative and dangerous jobs, there’s absolutely no need to distribute the social inequalities more evenly.

4. A quota arrangement is never an ideal situation. An ideal situation would include the potential results of a quota (equal representation) minus the actual quota rule.

5. A quota can never be a single solution. It is not an all-encompassing remedy for the inequality of the sexes; it may not even be a start in the right direction. The quota as an isolated measure is useless. It is not a coincidence that it has been embraced more in countries, which already have a fair amount of laws in place that promote equality (for example France and the Scandinavian countries).

6. Here is what the quota does:

It furthers the equal representation of half of the population. It helps create a society in which women are active and equal participants; a society that inspires young girls to follow in their footsteps and have high aspirations. Women’s issues and perspectives will become part of the agenda. 

they didn't need a quota to discuss women's issues: the all-male panel testifying before congress about the insurance coverage for contraception. via abc news

7. Here is what the quota doesn’t do:

It doesn’t necessarily improve the performance of a business or generate higher profits. It may even have the adverse effect. A quota arrangement is not designed as a push for the economy. It is an affirmative action to counter structural discrimination.

It doesn’t necessarily change or improve the working culture or hierarchical structures. That’s a whole other set of adjustments that does not automatically follow the implementation of a quota. A lot of rethinking is necessary in that area, and a quota can only ever be a tiny part of that process, if at all.

All things considered, I am still in favour of the quota, but as an isolated measure suggested  and enforced by politicians I find it unconvincing and populist. Evidently, there are different kinds of quotas, and in certain areas they make more sense to me than in others. I am certainly in favour of a quota in the media, and a political party without a considerable amount of women should be unelectable for any woman in my opinion. But when it comes to the boardroom quota for corporations, I kind of don’t really care. Somehow I highly doubt that any woman (or man) could end up in that position without compromising their convictions and throwing other women (or men) under the bus…

No Need For A Quota? – Women In The German Democratic Republic

While investigating the quota issue I came across another example, why equality on paper doesn’t necessarily lead to equality in real life: the German Democratic Republic. It is often deployed as a positive example for political interventions that forwarded women’s equality. In fact, the GDR did include the equality of men and women in its Constitution in 1949. Women were quickly integrated into the workforce (70% of all women were employed in 1962), and the government took measures to provide daycare and other benefits for families.

The writings of August Bebel, Friedrich Engels and Clara Zetkin provided the ideological background for these political measures. Engels described the antagonism between man and woman, specifically husband and wife, as the very first class oppression in history, in which the female sex is suppressed by the male. The woman, being financially dependent on her husband, can only be freed by securing her economic independence. The inclusion of women into the labor market was supposed to be the solution to the “woman question”.

This ideological legitimation for welcoming women into the labor market concealed the fact that the GDR depended on women as a labor force during the post-war era. In fact, most of the GDR’s political measures were driven by economic factors: the shortage of labor, the no longer secured reproduction of the population, and the loss of young talent that fled to the West. The emphasis on paternalistic, top-down solutions to these problems ignored specific women’s needs and the far more deeply ingrained inequalities of men and women.

In the German Democratic Republic, working was not simply a right of women; it was expected of them as much as from anyone else. Having children was also considered the norm. In fact, the majority of policies directed towards women were exclusively helpful to mothers (Erich Honecker’s “mommy politics” in the 70’s). Therefore, most women in the GDR were working and having a family at the same time. However, it is naive to believe that this led to instant equality between the sexes. In fact, in most cases it led to double or even triple the pressure for women, who were now responsible for the upbringing of the children and the keeping of the household, while also working full time. Later generations of men became more involved with their children and the home, but the government failed to ever explicitly state the responsibilities of men, thus leaving it entirely to the women to negotiate their standards in the private as well as in the professional sphere.

doris ziegler "ich bin du" ("i am you") 1983/84

Because the employment of women was more an economic necessity than a progressive step towards equality, certain inequalities were never eliminated. Traditional gender roles remained deeply fixed in the minds of the Eastern German people, who were unwilling to redistribute the work at home. The excessive demands in the private sphere discouraged and alienated women, who mostly felt independent and emancipated and not at all as inferior to their husbands. Their unwillingness and inability to put up with this situation is most adequately demonstrated by the increasing divorce rates and the falling birth rates. In the professional sphere, women faced wage discrimination and an obvious under-representation in leading political, economic and academic positions. During the 41 years of the GDR’s existence only three women achieved minister status in the state’s government.

The GDR can be regarded as among the forerunners in the emerging trend of the emancipation of women in the second half of the 20th century, closely followed by countries such as Sweden and the United States. While its society was certainly more progressive regarding women’s equality than its Western counterpart, it nevertheless failed to address prevalent issues that could not be explained from a purely materialist point of view. In fact, the GDR is often praised for its progressiveness mainly because West Germany, where only half of the women were part of the workforce, appeared overly reactionary in comparison. However, the reunification of East and West Germany thwarted many of the positive aspects of the GDR’s approach to women politics. By pronouncing Western German values and ideals the status quo, the reunited Germany failed to take the GDR’s progressive side into consideration, thus eliminating some true potential for a development towards a more equal society. Therefore it is not at all surprising that since “die Wende” not much has changed for the better for women in Germany in terms of policies.

For more information, see: Susanne Kranz: Women’s Role in the German Democratic Republic and the State’s Policy Toward Women.

matthias leupold "untitled" 1985

Don’t Practice What You Preach, or: What The Republican Party Can Teach Us

Recently I posted a blog entry about the women’s quota. During the process of writing I marvelled at myself for taking such a clear position in the debate. Naturally, I had familiarized myself with the pros and cons and developed my own opinion, but not without wondering: How does someone with rather socialist leanings such as myself end up defending the rights of the top (female) capitalists in Western Europe’s neoliberal society? The answer is fairly simple: what seems like a paradox at first sight is really a strategy.
But it doesn’t end there. Contradictions run through my blog like a red thread:

How can I justify promoting women’s liberation all over the world, even though I strongly reject the burqa ban?
Why do I bother fighting for the rights of mothers and families, when I’m trying to deconstruct the deification and euphemization of motherhood at the same time?
After reading and endorsing post-feminist theory, how can I still refer to men and women as biological and cultural categories?
How can I be pro-choice but anti-abortion?
How can I criticize commodity fetishism, while enjoying watching Sex and the City?
Why do I want to see more non-white models in Vogue etc., when I am critical of sexism and ageism in our society in general, and decry the objectification of women in advertisement?

a walking contradiction?

Everyone with strong convictions will come across similar difficulties at some point, be they personal or professional, or else their convictions are not very convincing to begin with or have never been challenged. So how do you negotiate this predicament? The answer: Don’t practice what you preach. The world can’t do it, and neither can you.

The Republican Party is a good example (no, seriously). Their entire program is highly paradoxical, culminating in their recent “pro-life” activities, which are really more adequately described as pro-death. How do they live with themselves, you might wonder? Well, I cannot answer that question for you but I do suspect how they make sense of it all: Behind all the seemingly contradictory aspects on their agenda lies one major goal that holds them all together. In the Republicans’ case this goal is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and with this in mind all of their recent activities make perfect sense all of a sudden: bust unions, fight health care, defund crucial women’s health institutions. The math is easy: The rich will always be able to pay a doctor – for a nose job, an STI screening or even a (secret) abortion. The poor will be left to their own devices, and especially poor women will be forced to once again give up control over their bodies. Occasionally the Republicans drift into hypocrisy, when they claim to act out the “will of the American people”, but generally their actions are rather consistent with their ultimate goal.  While this strategy may seem cruel, for the Republican Party it has proven very successful.

Back to my strategy: Just like the Republicans I, too, have an ultimate goal. Mine is, and I am not ashamed to say it, to make the world a slightly better place. All my convictions are based on that premise, as paradoxical as they may seem separately. The reason for that is that I had to learn to distinguish between theory and practice, between ideal and reality, between utopia and feasibility.

As I wrote in the aforementioned blog post, in theory a government may have implemented all the laws necessary to protect every minority from discrimination, in practice, however, some of the same structures are still in place that prevent us from truly living in equality. Some of those structures are systemic, some are cultural, with the two reinforcing each other constantly. In a post-gender, post-race society (I’m referring to the elimination of gender and race clichés, not the elimination of those categories) discrimination should be radically diminished or even non-existent; a quota system would become obsolete. However, it should be clear to everyone that this is by no means an adequate description of our reality.
As German grunge band Tocotronic put it back in 1995: Die Idee ist gut, doch die Welt noch nicht bereit. (The idea is good, but the world isn’t ready for it yet.) To put it in familiar feminist terms: “I’ll be a post-feminist in the post-patriarchy”.

I have to face the fact that I can’t eliminate discrimination (a quota can only do so much), but I can support measures that would improve the situation. Likewise, I cannot change the fact that our labor market is highly hierarchized, with some positions enjoying all the benefits and others hardly making a living, but I can try to give a greater variety of people access to these positions and to improve the way society views them.

I may not live up to all of my standards. I may have to make tough calls under certain circumstances,  but in the end I hope that small victories will make it all worthwhile.

In everything I do and promote I try to keep the greater picture in mind, but sometimes it is the small steps that count. Even if they seem to be sidetracked for a while, at least they are moving forward.

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.