Gender Quotas: Boon or bane? By Marlena Schmitz

Marlena Schmitz

In a world where there are more FTSE100 CEOs named John than there are women, quotas can help get more women through the door, around the leadership tables and in the decision making spaces. So the question is“To introduce gender quotas or not?” 

If you are among those wondering what gender quotas are: gender quotas are a set minimum percentage of how many women (or men, in some rare cases) need to be represented in company’s management, the parliament and other institutional contexts. Their goal is to help achieve gender balanced organisations, institutions and political bodies. 

Gender quotas are nothing new. In fact, more than 130 countries employ gender quotas to specify a threshold of women to be selected. For example, Norway has had a compulsory quota for all publicly traded firms since 2008, making it the oldest such requirement. Meanwhile, since June 2021, public companies in Germany with four or more board members must have at least one female board member.

Gender quotas are largely supported and seen as useful and necessary tools for improving the descriptive representation and increasing the awareness of the existing gender inequities, as they clearly point at the underrepresentation rate of women and create a sense of urgency to reach a balance. 

Furthermore, according to the World Economic Forum, reaching gender equity pre-pandemic globally would have taken around 100 years. Since the pandemic, this number has increased to 136 years. The McKinsey report on gender equity points out that this is because women lost 54% of all jobs during the pandemic, even though they make up for only 39% of employment. Bluntly, disproportionally more women lost their jobs than men in the last two years. Want to make a wild guess why? 

  1. Women do more part time work (around 82% women vs. 66% of men globally).
  2. Women tend to work in industries that are more susceptible to economic and social vulnerabilities and were hit harder by the pandemic, such as hospitality, leisure, marketing, and communication.
  3. Pandemic increased the need for care responsibilities, which meant nearly 10% of women in the UK had to quit their job, compared to 4% of men.

While there are clear benefits from introducing gender quotas, it is also argued that gender quotas promote hiring people based on their gender rather than skills and talent. So, while a man might be equally qualified for the role, the need to fulfil gender quotas might favour the female candidate.

Such actions have triggered a conversation around reversed gender discrimination, in which men feel discriminated due to their gender. Naturally, women experience discrimination due to their gender in most walks of life daily. (I talk more about this in the Why We Care About Gender Equity article you can find in resources below). Thus, it is unfortunate that quotas have shift the focus from gender equity and towards reversed gender discrimination.

The key problem associated with gender quotas is that they do not support reaching gender equity, as there is no inclusion of women but simply a compliance to fulfilling a quota. This is often referred to as gender-washing: Employing more women looks great on paper, but the cultural shift and change in mindsets, which are essential for this to be sustainable, often do not happen. Quotas are therefore a way of attending the symptoms of gender inequity rather than the root cause of it.

As with many mandatory solutions introduced to solve social and systemic issues, gender quotas equally create considerable debate around their effectiveness and unintended consequences, such as reversed gender discrimination. Nevertheless extensive research and gender quotas being widely employed across countries, there still exists substantial variation in how they work from country to country. There is hostility toward quotas in countries that don’t have them and enthusiasm for quotas in countries that do have them.

Here is how you can start building a more gender equitable culture within your organisation:

  1. Assess your policies and practises around flexible working and parental leave, as this will provide an environment in which women with additional commitments or care duties will be able to fully participate in workplaces.  
  2. Instead of just mentoring women – sponsor them! Many organisations turn to “mentoring schemes” as the solution for upskilling and preparing women for leadership roles. Yet, there is research and data supporting the facts that women have long outnumbered men in college/university enrolments; women have been found to exhibit more leadership traits than their male counterparts; and women founded businesses yield higher ROI. Women are educated, qualified and capable. What they need is sponsorship.
  3. Expand your definition of the ideal candidate. Research shows that people have preconceived notions of a ‘leader’, which is typically male. Recruiters and hiring managers need to expand their idea of an ideal candidate beyond the stereotypical male prototype and look beyond their typical recruitment circles.

As with many mandatory solutions introduced to solve social and systemic issues, there is no one-size-fits-all. Nevertheless extensive research and gender quotas being widely employed across countries, there exists substantial variation in their effectiveness from country to country and have surfaced such unintended consequences as reversed gender discrimination. While the gender quota debate is still heated, what it shows is how regulatory matters can be applied to draw attention to social issues and even assist in disrupting the status quo.

Connect with Marlena:


Instagram: @our_genderation


Further Reading:

Why care about gender equity

What Norway can teach us about getting more women into boardrooms



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