Women In The Workplace, Gender Quotas, Feminism: Who Needs Them

Norway introduced a gender quota system which resulted in a rise in women in senior leadership positions from 7% in 2003 to 40.3% in 2010.  With a larger number of women in power, all of whom deserve to be there, surely Norway’s social experiment should allow us to reconsider quotas?


Controversy sparked in Germany last month over a Facebook campaign attacking feminism that was fronted by the Alternative for Germany Party.  The campaign, entitled “I Am Not A Feminist” encouraged supporters to write signs stating why they didn’t support feminism in current German politics.  While many of the participants had completely missed the point of the feminist movement (with posts such as “I’m not a feminist because I like doors being held open and being helped into my jacket”), others drew attention to what has become a hot topic of discussion in German politics.  That is, the government’s proposal to mandate 30% of non-executive board seats to women.

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Here in Australia, similar debates rage as women remain under-represented in positions of power in business and politics while the gender pay gap sits at a problematic 17.5%.  Despite these dire statistics, there is a reluctance to take affirmative action like that of the German government due to strong opposition to gender quota systems.

Those against gender quotas believe it undermines the principle of merit, and that women employed under a quota system are likely to encounter discrimination in the workplace. Such arguments for meritocracy over quotas are strong, and I would likely agree with them if it were not for certain cultural barriers occurring unconsciously within the job market.

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Unfortunately, the key reason why so few women take up positions of power is not because women do not possess leadership qualities. It is because of an unconscious bias present in current hiring patterns.  The bias is not one that can be blamed on individuals (I promise your boss is not out to get you). It is a result of cultural institutions that teach us what traits make a leader.

Such arguments for meritocracy over gender quotas are strong, and I would likely agree with them if it were not for cultural barriers occurring unconsciously within the job market.

Don’t believe me?  Do a Google image search on the word manager then count how many women you see.  While we’re on the topic of unconscious discrimination, it is also worth noting how ethnically diverse and able-bodied the people in the images are.  My search results came back with an awful lot of middle-aged, white men.  What does that say about our imagined expectations when we consider someone for promotion?  Leadership qualities are historically and culturally linked with masculinity and traits normally associated with (white) men.  In other words, without even realising it we are more likely to recognise authority, strength and confidence in a male rather than a female candidate for a job.

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In Sweden, a nation where voluntary quotas enforced by political parties have resulted in women holding over 45% of parliamentary seats, research proved that a female graduate of medicine must be far more qualified and productive than her male counterpart if she is to receive a postdoctoral fellowship.  Where is the merit in that?

If this kind of unconscious discrimination occurs in Sweden, ranked 4th best nation in the world for women’s rights, how often must it occur in Australia ranked 24th?  Studies undertaken in the USA, ranked as the 23rd best nation for women to live in, have supported Swedish findings, revealing that when promotions are granted on merit “men were more likely to be selected, and more likely to be awarded higher salary increases compared to equally rated women.

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