In Depth

Gender quotas: vital for equality or mere tokenism?

Campaigners argue that quotas are the quickest way to improve female representation, but others warn of unintended consequences

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Quotas to improve the representation of women in business and politics have been implemented in many parts of the world, but are often met with strong opposition.

Britain has chosen not to implement gender quotas in business, despite strong evidence that better female representation leads to better financial performance. It has instead adopted an unofficial target of 25 per cent female board representation by the end of this year. Currently, women occupy just 22.8 per cent of FTSE 100 board seats, according to the Daily Telegraph.  

A similar figure exists in politics, although the recent election has resulted in a record number of women MPs being elected. Before last week, there were more men in the House of Commons than there had been female MPs in all previous parliaments combined. The previous three elections added an average of just eight women MPs each time. "At this rate, it will take about 22 elections, or 110 years, to achieve a 50:50 parliament," predicts Buzzfeed

Campaigners argue that the persisting imbalance is so entrenched that the only way to achieve equality is to mandate it. The head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, has come out in support of quotas, saying that legally enforcing the number of women on boards is "unfortunate, but necessary".

The campaign group 50:50 Parliament argues that gender quotas aren't just about female empowerment. "It's about drawing upon the whole population – and not just the 49 per cent that are men – to help make a better, more representative parliament," said founder Frances Scott. Compulsory quotas need to be implemented more widely, says Catalyst, a non-profit organisation for women in business. "Companies that are not making diversity on boards a priority should be embarrassed," said president and chief executive Deborah Gillis. 

But not everyone agrees. Critics argue that quotas can force bosses to hire less-qualified candidates in a rush to tick boxes. Norway was the first European country to impose strict quotas and in order to follow the rules, companies promoted some women who were less experienced than the directors they replaced, says The Economist. "These new hires appear to have done a poor job." 

And while quotas may be the quickest and most effective way to address gender disparities as far as numbers are concerned, "their positive benefits may be short-lived," argues Peggy Drexler in the Daily Beast.

"The quota system – or, more specifically, the women pulled into power because of it – can suffer from the perception that companies are getting the best of a single and specific gender, and not the best, period". She argues that these women are successful for reasons other than the fact that they are women, "and the quota system discounts that".

While official quotas remain a divisive issue, most agree that the underlying issues behind unequal representation need to be addressed. Challenging institutional sexism in business and politics, addressing soaring childcare costs and offering greater flexibility for working mothers should all be addressed if the gender imbalance in the workplace is to truly shift. 

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