In defence of Gender Quotas

It has been a controversial topic for the past decade, and emotions run high when discussing it – should private businesses be legally required to introduce more women to executive boards?

The current business environment can be a daunting prospect for females. How could Gender Quotas help rectify these problems?

Women currently fill 22% of executive board seats across the EU. Even though this number has more than doubled over the past 10 years, women only make up 7% of board chairs and presidents, and 6% of Chief executives of large companies.
To rectify this, the European Commission is currently proposing a 40% female quota when hiring new executive board members.

A previous attempt to introduce this quota in 2012 was blocked by the UK and rejected by Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. The new proposition was, as expected, met with mixed reviews – with the main opposition coming from countries like Hungary or Poland, where the number of women on executive boards plummeted to 3-5% since right wing parties took office.
When Gender Quotas are discussed, the reaction is often all too foreseeable: Open letters from industry leaders arguing they should be able to make any recruitment choices without governmental intervention, an interview with an old, white and male CEO of a large company who feels threatened or impeded by such legislature, public discussions during which hostility between the sexes only increases due to the ever-persisting fear of either side being disadvantaged, and in an effort to showcase the futility of Gender Quotas those few women that managed to land executive roles without governmental intervention are presented as the token of a non-existent problem.

Men in general think they might be cheated because of these quotas. The men on executive boards, working alongside these newly promoted women, might feel their female counterparts didn’t earn their right to be there. Women might feel these measures are condescending and undemocratic, as multiple opinion pieces in newspapers and online suggest – pieces almost exclusively written by females.
To change these viewpoints I think we need to change the way we discuss these issues.

When trying to introduce Gender Quotas through legislation the focus has always been on what women on the board may do for the business: Greater financial performance, higher productivity, better ROI or planning capabilities.
While all of these may or may not be the consequence, as countless studies either affirm or oppose these results, Gender Quotas hold a much more intrinsic value in my opinion.

Instead of focusing on the certain qualities that each gender supposedly adds to the boardroom, usually grossly generalist assumptions that are sexist in and of themselves, board members should simply be assessed for the individual value they could add. I refuse to believe the most qualified people for executive positions are overwhelmingly men from an elite circle that remains unchallenged. The way executive positions are being filled at the moment seems arbitrary at best, with a variety of factors, such as personal relationships, height, weight, or Lookism in general, influencing promotions to a shocking degree. By forcing companies to abstain from the trodden path, the air of stagnation surrounding most board rooms may be overcome.

Those women promoted to leading positions also shouldn’t be regarded as representatives of womanhood in general. The climate of the Gender Quota debates puts enormous pressure on these “lucky” few, as they are held to a much higher standard than their male counterparts and scrutinized for every decision.
Gender Quotas should simply be introduced because it is the right thing to do. 65% of university graduates are female, roughly 75% of spending power lies with females, and the number of women who never work outside of home – which might have been the norm 70 years ago – has reduced dramatically.

The workplace has changed. A change in the perception of females in the workplace may not be forced by simply requiring companies to promote them – but by changing the composition of board rooms, changes in other areas may also follow suit. Diluting the power of men, in business, politics, education and government alike, may allow further progression towards the reduction of the wage gap and inequality of employment may be tackled more effectively.

I don’t believe societal change in this matter will happen from within for a long time and gender inequality is a pressing issue. 81% of Vice-Chancellors are male, even though academia is dominated by women. About 60.000 women per year in the UK alone lose their jobs due to pregnancy, the number of women denied employment due to the possibility of pregnancy can only be guessed. Just taking the legally allotted maternity leave may damage a woman’s career irreparably.

Even if these Quotas will get blocked again, change has to be enforced by changing the way we talk about gender equality in the workforce. I strongly suggest that as (future) specialists in the PR field we need to promote this idea:

It’s not discrimination against men when women, the sex currently discriminated against, demand their right to a fair share.

And even if some people may not do it out of conviction, they should consider it for selfish reasons – equality is great PR for any company!

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