Sometime last year a friend of mine posed a very interesting question. We had just finished dinner and were well on our way through our second bottle of wine when he mentioned some problems he'd been having at work. As the organiser of promotional events and conferences for a charitable organisation, the booking of speakers fell solely on his shoulders. Yet for some reason he had found there were simply not as many women speakers as men. His answer? Introduce a quota.
The idea is simple. Set a percentage of how much of a certain group you want within your organisation and rigorously enforce it. In the case of my friend this meant simply asking more and more women to speak until they finally made up half of the programme. The idea is also nothing new. Quotas been banded around several times in recent years coupled with happy and righteous tag words like “equality” and “positive discrimination”. Only yesterday an EU debate on the subject was postponed.
The latest proposals, brought by the European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, would see it made compulsory for companies to reserve 40% of their seats for women. However the plans were put on hold after as many as 11 of the 27 member states expressed objections and the legality of the move itself was brought into question. I couldn't help but let out a sigh of relief.
It's easy to see why the idea looks attractive on the surface; currently women make up a mere 15% of board positions throughout the EU. Some may even go as far to suggest that as feminists it's our job to fight for our fair share of boardroom space. Yet I couldn't think of many things more patronising and degrading than being picked for a role solely for the purpose of filling a quota.
Women should fight for their rights to be in boardrooms and other high flying areas, but they should do this through being damn good at what they do. Job applications should be based on the merit and capabilities of the candidate – not on what may or may not be in their pants. If I got hired I'd want to know it's because I was the best option out there. It's easy to slate a company for a poor ratio of females at the very top, but if the men were simply the better candidates at the time we should stop fishing for a pity vote and up our game. It's business sense.
That's not to say that sexism in the boardroom does not exist, but the way to tackle negative attitudes is through education – not with measures which only mask the true problem. Enforcing mandatory quotas will not change social attitudes overnight. If a company are biased against women, forcing them into hiring more won't suddenly change that. If anything, quotas have the potential to let biased employers parade as one offering equal opportunities.
If we really want to address the gender bias perhaps we should start looking for the root cause of the problem. Quotas are not “quick fix equality”.