Are Quotas the Answer to Underrepresentation of Women in the Workforce?

Image Source:  The Indian Express

Image Source: The Indian Express

A 2017 catalyst report on women in management positions across the world revealed that we’re far from reaching gender equality. In 2016, women only held 24% of senior roles globally, a measly 3% increase from 2011. What’s worse is that one third of global businesses have no women in senior management roles. The higher up the corporate ladder you go, the fewer women you find. Globally, woman make up only 4% of board chairs.

Women in leadership

Given that girls are outperforming boys in education, and that women make up at least 40 percent of the workforce globally, there evidently isn’t a shortage of women to take up these positions. So why is there such a disparity?

Because gender discrimination still exists.

Workplace culture continues to embody stereotypes of women as too weak to be leaders, or conversely, too bossy when they exhibit any sign of assertiveness. For example, a Spanish company rejected a woman based on her gender, stating that the ‘account executive role needed a man who could handle the pace of working with big companies’. Middle-aged white men who make up the majority of these positions are also more likely to hire people with whom they share a sense of familiarity. If there are less women on top, there are less women fighting for representation at senior levels. The age old question is: how do we tackle the gender disparity in positions of power in workforce? Many governments, institutions, corporations and activists have come up with a solution: Quotas.

Are Quotas a valid solution?

Image source: FLICKR

Image source:FLICKR

The introduction of quotas to increase representation of women at senior level positions has been controversial in pretty much every country where they have been implemented. There’s the argument that quotas undermine women’s achievements and abilities, using their gender rather than their profesional merit to get a role. Meanwhile, the Economist reports that some companies claim that qualified women simply aren’t coming forward for these positions, or that the women available lack the experience needed. More often than not, quotas aren’t presented as the answer to a systematic problem, but rather another form of driving social division and discriminating against men. However, what these arguments fail to take into account is that women are not starting on an equal footing with men. When you add other levels of discrimination based on race, sexual orientation or disability, the playing field gets even more uneven.

Because if the current system worked correctly, and if hiring processes were successfully recruiting and promoting the right people for the right jobs in all circumstances, I seriously doubt that so many leadership positions would be occupied by white middle-aged men. Those who insist on fairness fail to recognise that the current state of play is far from fair.
— Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race.

Many countries have officially recognised this disparity, and are actively enforcing quotas as a solution to the underrepresentation of women. Countries with specific quota requirements have nearly double the average percentage of women on boards than countries with no quotas. Meanwhile, after implementing a quota system in 2008 which obliged companies to reserve at least 40% of their director seats for women, in Norway nearly 50 per cent of boardroom positions are held by women. Quotas aren’t only having an impact in boardrooms. Electoral quotas for parliamentary representation in Latin America and several African nations have proven to be successful. In Rwanda, following the 2013 election, 64 percent of the Chamber of Deputies were women, meanwhile quotas saw Costa Rica’s parliament go from 19 percent women to 35 percent in just one year in 2002. There is ample evidence that quotas work as an active measure to ensure that there is more representation of women in higher level positions.

What about women in lower positions?

Where these quotas seem to fail, however, is in the mobilisation of women in lower positions and their ability to progress. Ten years after implementing the boardroom quota, the Economist reports that in Norway, quotas ‘have had no discernible beneficial effect on women at lower levels of the corporate hierarchy’, with no effect on the representation of women in senior management in the firms where it applied. Furthermore, quotas don’t necessarily mean that women hired for these higher level positions will reflect the diverse makeup of the society that the company serves. They don’t address race, class, sexuality or disability, therefore eliminating the importance for other forms of diversity and the representation of minority groups. It’s therefore difficult to enforce quotas that will really make a difference in terms of equality for all women.

Despite this, quotas act as an important short-term solution that can help level out the playing field. It’s a slow process and we may not see significant change in our lifetime. However, the goal is that future generations won’t need to implement quotas because all corporations will have deconstructed discriminatory practices in hiring processes and be representative of the societies that they serve.


Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza.