Why women-only quotas don’t discriminate against men

February 1, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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(Prompted by a few tweets I saw this morning.)

Q1: Lloyds Bank have set a quota of giving 40% of top jobs to women. How is this different from sex discrimination?

Women make up just over half the population, yet very few women are in top jobs. There are two possible reasons for this:

  1. Women just aren’t capable of doing top jobs
  2. Women don’t get top jobs because of other factors

If you don’t believe (1), then you need to address (2). Affirmative action/ quotas/ positive discrimination is one way of doing this.

There’s a whole raft of possible reasons women don’t get jobs at this level. Here are some that have been discussed in the research that I know of:

  • The demands of top jobs don’t suit women because they have other priorities, e.g. family, so they don’t apply for them;
  • Women don’t think of applying for these jobs because everyone else at that level is male, so they have no role models;
  • Men are (consciously or unconsciously) encouraged to apply for these jobs more than women are, e.g. by their superiors;
  • Women doubt their abilities more than men do, and are less likely to think they are qualified for these jobs;
  • As everyone at this level tends to be male, appointing committees tend to appoint in their own image;
  • The culture of many organisations is still (overtly or covertly) sexist, with women struggling to be heard and taken seriously at all levels.

If you want more women in top jobs, you’ll need to address these issues too. Therefore, crucially, affirmative action/ quotas/ positive discrimination does not mean running the selection process as normal, and giving the job to any woman who applies in order to fill the quota: these schemes normally include action to improve the number and quality of applications from women in various ways (e.g. the BBC is currently running various study days to encourage women into broadcasting. You still have to be selected to get onto these, so it’s not a free-for-all). Organisations also have to look hard at their practices. Is there a long-hours, ‘presenteeism’ culture that discourages anyone who wants (or needs) to work part-time or flexibly? Are women being promoted at the same rate as men? If not, why not? Are appropriate training/ CPD/ mentoring/ buddying opportunities available to address women’s doubts about their qualifications/ experience? Has the appointments process been scrutinised?

Q2: But if you set aside 40% of jobs for women only, doesn’t that discriminate against equally well-qualified men?

If your default position is ‘These jobs belong to men’, then yes, it looks like discrimination to unfairly give some of them to women. If your default position is ‘This company needs to reflect the community is it part of’, then it doesn’t: it just looks like equality of opportunity. The aim is that, eventually, positive discrimination should be unnecessary, and that the advertising/ application/ selection process for any job should result in a set of candidates that naturally encompasses all sectors of the community. You can then make your selection on the basis of merit alone, as you can be sure that you’ve got the best possible set of candidates in front of you. But until that happens, you need to make sure you aren’t discriminating against groups of people before they even apply.

Q3: What if women just aren’t as good at this stuff as men are?

When you can provide me with research evidence that shows that women think/ plan/ negotiate/ strategise/ research/ evaluate/ bargain/ manage/ argue/ diplomatise/ decide less effectively than men do, I’ll take this question seriously.

Q4: OK, what I really meant was: what if the business world is set up for the way men do things? Won’t women struggle to work in a man’s world?

What is this ‘men’s way of doing things’? Forging alliances while playing squash? Making key decisions in strip clubs? Forgive me for thinking these are not appropriate business methods, and could in fact be construed as wilfully excluding anyone who doesn’t fit in.

If you mean something like ‘men can make brutal business decisions but women can’t’, I refer you to my answer to Q3.

If you mean something like ‘men and women handle brutal business decisions differently’ – and assuming, as per Q3, you can provide me with the research evidence to support this, rather than it just being your feeling about what women are like – what’s wrong with that? Why should men’s way of doing things necessarily be better? Perhaps a bit of change would be healthy.

Q5: I’m a woman, and I’m immensely successful in my field. I got here through hard graft and determination, and I don’t see the need for quotas. If I can do it, surely anyone can?

That’s terrific. Well done. But why aren’t there more like you? If you think it’s because women don’t have the grit/ guts/ determination/ singlemindedness to get what they want, I refer you to my answers to questions 3 and 4. If it’s not that, what is getting in the way of other women? Contextual factors? Why not try and redress these?

Q6: Why bother?

If you run a company, don’t you want the best employees? If you’re a parent, don’t you want your daughters (as well as your sons) to fulfil their potential, to make the best possible use of their talents and skills? More generally, do you care about equality of opportunity? Does it bother you that some people might have advantages that others don’t, just because of something arbitrary? Do you want businesses and institutions that reflect and contribute to a progressive society, or just reinforce the status quo?

NB. This is all off the top of my head, so I haven’t put in links to the relevant research. In my experience no-one clicks links in blogposts anyway, but if you want them, I’ll try and find them.



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  1. I really like this. *nods in agreement*

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