The Trouble with Quotas

Historically, international legislation on the topic of gender equality has often sparked controversy and critical dismissal. The latest version of the debate on women’s rights has focused on the increasing prevalence of quotas for women leaders in both politics and business. Despite the obvious irony, it comes as no surprise that seven Indian MPs harassed Vice President Hamid Ansari on March 8, International Women’s Day, tearing up and throwing copies of the Women’s Reservation Bill at him while shouting anti-bill slogans. Nonetheless, the bill, which imposed a 33 percent quota on seats in both national and state-level legislatures, was passed in Parliament the next day. Unlike in the past, opposition to the bill is focused not on the expansion of opportunities that it affords for women, but on the prospects for strategic politicking—the major claim being that, because of the perceived lack of interest and ability in political engagement amongst women of underprivileged classes, the women most likely to win the reserved seats would be of the upper- and middle-classes. As a result, minority-based parties may potentially be disadvantaged by quota legislation. illustration by Elizabeth Simins

Illustration by Elizabeth Simins

In the corporate world, women are similarly receiving a giant leg-boost through the established glass ceiling. Countries as varied as Spain and France are poised to follow the example of Norway, which imposed a 40 percent quota on women in boardrooms in 2005. Norwegian policymakers imposed a three-year deadline for firms to essentially quadruple the amount of women in their boardrooms or face being shut down by the state. An ambitious goal, perhaps, but not without precedent in Norway— a similar quota for the public sector had been implemented successfully in the 1980s. In a way, the Norwegian government was simply continuing a legacy of pushes towards gender equality in a method considered fairly tried and true. Ansgar Gabrielsen, Norway’s Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and a conservative, explains support for quota legislation as a natural and rational outcome in a modern society, “I could not see why,” he told The Guardian, “after 25 to 30 years of having an equal ratio of women and men in universities and with having so many educated women with experience, there were so few of them on boards.” Gabrielsen’s statement hits home for most countries with high education levels—in the United States, for example, women occupy only 15 percent of available board seats, despite the fact that they are more likely than men to graduate both high school and college.

Nonetheless, as Schumpeter points out in his March 11 article in The Economist, outrage in “old-boy” networks was the immediate and widespread response to the ruling in Norway. As in the more recent case of India, opposition did not directly denigrate the advancement of women or question social justice as an abstract goal. The primary concerns listed include, as in India’s situation, the inadvertent exclusion of equally qualified candidates as well as effects on the performance of the greater entity in consideration—the nation or corporation. In Norway, it was proclaimed that that the magnitude and the stringency of the ruling was audacious in its own right; corporate failure and board mismanagement were darkly forecast alongside mentions of talented young men being passed over for under-qualified women. None of the more extreme prophecies came true. Quota programs were not, most realized with relief, some sort of nightmarish form of affirmative action. But neither were they able to generate the results predicted by their most optimistic supporters. Quotas did not seem to substantially improve performance in Norwegian corporations. In a study conducted by Professor Amy Dittmar at the Ross School of Business, it was found that, on average, firms saw a 2.6 percent drop in company value at the outset of the ruling, and this slow plummet continued as the quota program began to see implementation.

Photo by Joyce Ng

PROBLEMS WITH ENDOGENOUS APPROACHES TO QUOTAS Dittmar, however, has an important disclaimer about her research results: the women who gained seats in Norway in the aftermath of the ruling, given the huge necessary percentage leap, tended to be less experienced than both male and female predecessors—this, and not some ambiguous new ‘feminized’ leadership strategies, negatively impacted corporate performance. Her explanation, then, is exogenous to women themselves, and brings up the folly of rationalizing legislation based on endogenous claims about gender. In the example of Norway, proponents like Gabrielsen based much of their support on what they identified as intrinsic differences between men and women. As Gabrielsen explains, beyond social justice, “the law was not about getting equality between the sexes; it was about the fact that diversity is a value in itself, that it creates wealth.” Gender-based diversity of thought or inclination, clearly, can only exist if women are considered to have certain inherent characteristics that set them (and their cognitive processes) apart from their male colleagues, be it in the boardroom or legislature. The same kinds of relativist rationalizations are used in the realm of politics, and it is merely the inversion of this reasoning that is most often used against the advancement of women in patriarchal societies. At a recent gender policy panel sponsored by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, entitled “Women in Politics: Underrepresented? Overrepresented?,” discriminative perspectives on the question of quotas were addressed at some length. As Visiting Professor Oksana Kis of the Ukrainian Institute of Ethnology explained, in countries like Ukraine and Russia, “the mentality is [still] that politics are not made for women, and women are not made for politics.” Similarly, a widely heralded 2007 Baylor survey found that 33 percent of Americans felt that “most men are better suited emotionally for politics than most women,” the converse of the positive argument that women are more risk-averse and therefore would be less likely to lead a country into financial or political crises.

Concentrating on endogenous reasons for possible benefits to quotas or women’s rights legislation in general is, then, both simplistic and reductionist and, perhaps more importantly, leads policymakers down problematic legislative paths. True, quotas can be seen as a potential method of providing and harnessing gender-reliant diversity. But, in approaching the issue in this way, politicians have failed to address materially grounded issues of wealth, education, and experience. More promising and generative, then, is the consideration of exclusively exogenous reasoning and outcomes—that is, to view women as any other disadvantaged minority group, in need of tangible professional and educational experience to truly perform at par with the men they compete with for leadership positions.

STRUCTURAL AND GRASSROOTS CONCERNS ADDRESSED Quota legislation has inadvertently led to the revelation of these deeply rooted structural problems in both politics and business, and only appears to short-sightedly address a symptom of these issues—inadequate representation of women in leadership positions. Luckily, the seemingly inevitable enactment of more quota programs over the next few years may actually increase the urgency of addressing structural problems and, in fact, outsource the responsibility of solving these issues to private entities—political parties and corporations, for example, whose performance in government or in the market will increasingly rely on the effectuality of their women leaders. Politicos and businesspeople are finally beginning to seriously ask themselves, “How can women be empowered across the board to overcome obvious problems of inexperience and profession-specific education?”

In Norway, programs like the Female Future Initiative—a one-and-a-half year managerial seminar headed by the unlikely Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise—are becoming increasingly popular, as businesses temper their previous disgruntlement with the attitude: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Elsewhere, major companies like Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, Europe’s largest telecommunications company, are recognizing and attempting to redress the structural issues with quota legislation that Norway’s case exposed. Deutsche Telekom has instituted its own quotas for upper and middle-management positions, requiring 30 percent of these positions to be held by women by 2015. As Deutsche Telekom is essentially providing their female employees with the promise of experience in management positions, this is, in fact, one step towards increasing the number of women in board positions as well.

As Time reported on March 22, the German telecommunications company is also looking to redress basic obstacles to women’s participation by making childcare less of an issue for women: “In order to recruit more women managers, the company says it plans to introduce more flexible working hours and part-time positions, as well as expand its parental leave schemes and child-care services.” There are also plans to create a ‘stay in contact program,’ which would better allow women managers on maternity leave to stay posted about corporate goings-on. For German businesses, these sorts of private initiatives are just a result of good business sense as 60 percent of German business-school graduates are women, and by boosting the numbers of women in management positions—and, eventually, board positions—Deutsche Telekom will in fact be capitalizing on an available resource of educated and talented individuals in the hopes of eventually improving company performance and profitability. Similarly, Sweden has implemented parent-friendly legislation in the workplace, minus the quota requirements, along with gender-neutralizing motivations for men to take time off work to care for their children. This has worked well for Sweden, where women now fill almost 50 percent of board seats in state-held companies, and only serves to reinforce the importance of questioning quota legislation as a standalone solution.

In politics, the situation is little different. Quotas in politics are currently being instituted to address the dearth of women in leadership positions on the national level. Attempts to institute quotas—as in the case of India—are already revealing structural problems prevalent in electoral machinery. Since, in countries such as India, the party system is largely contingent on underlying class structure, the major adversarial complaint is that quota legislation instituted solely for women could seriously disadvantage parties representing the lower classes. While much of this comprises party filibustering in the hopes of passing reservations for other minorities, the issue of undereducated women is a structural problem that, as in European businesses, will need addressing over the next few years if the expectation of fair representation is to be fulfilled in the post-quota period.

In the case of India, the problem of women being inadequately experienced in the realm of national-level politics was, arguably, in the process of being solved years ago. Between 1992 and 1993, the Indian government imposed the 73nd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, which reserved 33 percent of seats in all local elected bodies for women. The results have been surprisingly dynamic, with women on the village-level organizing around political issues, gaining valuable experience in the local context, and passionately exercising their rights to election. According to The Hunger Project, over 1 million women have taken part in politics as a result of the Amendments, in a system of more than 500,000 villages and 600 million people. The Hunger Project explains that, “contrary to fears that the elected women would be rubber stamp leaders, the success stories that have arisen from PRI are impressive. A government-financed study, based on field work in 180 villages . . . has found that a full two-thirds of elected women leaders are actively engaged in learning the ropes and exercising power.” Unlike in the case of Norway, then, we may find in the years to come—and depending on the implementation of the national-level quotas—that India already has a reserve of women of lower-class and under-privileged backgrounds waiting for their opportunity to enter into the positions of national leadership. In August of last year, the Cabinet approved a quota bump to 50 percent on the local level, a measure that should only serve to increase the number of politically experienced women eager to engage in national politics.

Like Norway, India may serve as a test case for quota systems in the future—but, unlike Norway, it may turn out to be one that has somewhat inadvertently taken the time to address grassroots issues of training and mobilization before implementation on the national level. In Europe, Deutsche Telekom’s efforts may very well prove to successfully place women in senior management positions by targeting the issue from the bottom-up.

According to the Director of Women’s Studies at the City College of New York, Professor Joyce Gelb, in countries like Taiwan, where reservation systems have had more-than-successful results in increasing women’s representation in national legislature, “Sources of women’s recruitment played a role ... Feminist activism in Taiwan has led to women’s wanting to gain access to positions in government.” Gelb warns, however, of failing to take into account the problems of moving beyond quotas in legislature to women’s representation in appointed positions even in fairly progressive states like Taiwan: “Reservations ... were legislatively-based; in terms of the Cabinet and ministerial system, these quotas and reservations would never be accepted” as things stand. This is, perhaps, an instance in which further research is needed: even in countries with relatively low inequality and high education levels for both genders, Gelb implies, value systems often cut short the progression of women’s participation in both business and politics. Many countries, then, can potentially benefit from an appropriate analysis of their structural condition with regards to levels of experience amongst future women leaders; without this, quota legislation over the next decade or so may fall miserably short of expectations, be these grounded in social justice or material success.