The Quota Debacle

Last Friday many of us took International Women's Day to celebrate the awesome women around us as well as focus on what we need to do to get closer to achieving gender equality. Yet there are always some (men) pointing out that we have indeed already achieved equality or even worse wondering what on earth was so bad about the times when women just *voluntarily* stayed in the kitchen and cared for their families. Something that seems to come up a lot in the gender debate is quotas - targets of a certain share of women in a committee (legislature, executive, firm) to achieve descriptive representation.

First, what is descriptive representation?
This concept came from the political sciences and holds that the people that represent us should look like us. Descriptive representation - or the politics of presence - means that what we talk (substantive representation) about and who brings up issues is closely related. Groups that have been historically discriminated against or marginalized share distinct experiences that enable them better to bring up these issues in government for example. In my Gender in Politics lecture the lecturer brought up the example of period poverty, the fact that even in the UK many women can't afford hygienic products during their period (because bleeding and period pains are not enough, no we also have to pay so we can go on with our everyday lives). Can a man bring up this issue? Sure. Will he bring up this issue?  Given the fact that many men get uncomfortable simply talking about menstruation (if you speak German check out this amazing link), I highly doubt it. This idea of descriptive representation combined with the fact that women are still underrepresented in most decision making bodies has led to quotas, voluntary or mandatory targets of the share of women (e.g. 50/50).

In preparation for my essay (and because it's fun) let's go through some of the main objections to quotas.

1. If women were good enough to be in parliament we would just vote for them
(equivalent: if women were good enough to be managers they'd just get hired)
Ugh. Statements like these first of all ignore the fact that the system was designed by men and (consciously or not) for men, too. For example, in many scenarios to even be considered as a candidate for political office you need a political network which is way harder to build if you're a newcomer than if you come from a political family. And, even more important, there is direct and indirect bias against women. Whether people (mistakenly) think women won't be as qualified or they think they behave in a gender-neutral way but actually subconsciously prefer men, this hinders women to get to the top. Lastly, how do we even define qualification? For the government, for example, we seem to have pretty low standards (*cough* TRUMP *cough*) as to who we consider an appropriate candidate. Furthermore, representatives need a wide range of skills, there is not a list of skills/qualifications that you can check and determine whether someone would be a good congressman/woman. Case in point, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was deemed too young, too inexperienced, too naive (or maybe just too female???) to be a congresswoman and now she's there kicking ass. In summary, women are amazing and there are many reasons they are not yet equally represented, but their qualifications are not one of them.

2. We want the best candidates for a position. What if the "quota women" take away the spots from better-qualified men?
This links closely to the previous argument of how we define who is qualified. But also, as an anecdote, when now US Supreme Court Justice (and overall badass) Ruth Bader Ginsburg went to Harvard Law school as one of nine women in a class of 500 men, the dean of Harvard asked her (and the other women) how they justified stealing the spot from a qualified man. He asked Ruth Bader Ginsburg?!?!?!?!?! What I'm trying to say here is that women are very well qualified but for some reason (historic discrimination maybe, who knows?) constantly have their capabilities questioned. Furthermore, there is an argument to be made that the women that actually do make it as far as being considered for a leading position are already from a pool of better-qualified candidates. As previously mentioned, women face a lot of additional hurdles, whether it's having to constantly prove themselves as capable, being judged harsher by critics (don't even get me started on the media) or facing discrimination throughout their lives, the women that make it as far as even being considered are definitely as qualified (if not better) as their male counterparts. To illustrate this, think of a hurdling race. 10 women and 10 men start at the same time and compete for one of 10 spots for the championship. Women run on a track with 15, men on a track with 5 hurdles. At the finish line, there are 7 men and 5 women who made it. Now all 7 men make it to the championship and only 3 women (there are 10 spots total). Does that seem fair? I'd rather have the 5 women who already had to work way harder and made it at the championship that decides over access to health care, tax issues and civil rights (breaking the metaphor here a little). You get the point, women are very well qualified, quotas simply attempt to level the playing field.

3. What if the "quota-women" are not seen as legitimate which impedes their ability to do their work?
Well, just overcome your stereotypes and intolerance then.

Okay, in all fairness, people have raised some fair doubts about quotas and I am sure there are some legitimate philosophical objections concerning positive discrimination (or the trigger-word for all conservative Americans "affirmative action") but in reality, we are at the point were gender equality should really not be an issue anymore. Once you accept that women are very well qualified (or alternatively that the way we define qualification unfairly favors males) but don't achieve representation because of unnecessary institutional hurdles and bias, quotas shouldn't be that hard of a pill to swallow anymore.

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