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workplace gender quotas

Targeting gender equality: why we need quotas

With #metoo and #timesup dominating our airwaves recently, I’ve had many conversations about what it means to be a young female in the workforce. Things you can and can’t do, how to navigate challenges we face, and importantly, what we want the future of working to look like for women and how we might get there. Inevitably, gender quotas or targets in the workplace come up. It does, on occasion, get heated.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with some of the reasons why no self-respecting woman would ever want to be party to such a discriminatory practice. Of course, quotas are anti-feminist. They lead to less qualified candidates snatching jobs from under the noses of more qualified (presumably more male) candidates. And surely all these “qualified women” would prefer to get these jobs based on merit alone, anyway?

I don’t quite see it that way.

With women taking up just 38% of manager-level roles (a figure that narrows substantially the more senior the role), paid $26K less than their male counterparts (with a pay gap favouring men evident across all industries) and female representation on boards sitting at only 25%, we need to be doing better to support gender diverse workplaces.

Scarier still is that the average superannuation balances for women at retirement are 53% less than those for men. Urgh. That can have real and devastating impacts on a woman’s quality of life as she ages.  

And while the pay gap is trending downwards and female hires in managerial roles trending upwards, progress is, as the WGEA Director Libby Lyons puts it, frustratingly slow and there is much more to be done.

So, do I believe in gender quotas? Yeah, I do. Do I think that quotas are the only thing companies should do to encourage gender diversity? Not at all. Do I think they’re the end goal? Absolutely not. But, at this point in time, I think they’re necessary to help shift company cultures and remove structural barriers that, while showing signs of improvement, could and should be changing faster.

I know some people will continue to view gender quotas and targets as reverse-discrimination, but as Laurie Penny writes in her latest essay collection, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, “We would do well to recall that for centuries, there was a quota for representation of men in politics and the press, sometime legally enforced, sometimes so universally accepted that it didn’t have to be codified in law. The quota was 100 per cent.” Thankfully that’s not the case anymore but there are still a lot of factors meaning that female participation in the workforce is lacking. Quotas can help.

A friend recently told me about an acquaintance of theirs working in HR who was lamenting the difficulties of, under a newly christened corporate gender target, having to defend every male hire they recommended. I’m not here for making people’s job unnecessarily cumbersome and difficult, but it’s positive to see corporations taking diversity hires seriously, asking hiring managers and HR to really consider what makes someone qualified for a job – that a candidate doesn’t have to walk, talk, think or look like the people who’ve come before them to make them qualified. That’s progress.

I have no doubt that if a male candidate is the most qualified for the job, that they’ll get it, but at least we’re seeing structural changes like quotas and targets allowing women a fairer shot. And with study after study finding that diverse teams lead to better bottom line results, this isn’t just good news for women, this is good news for business in general.

While a lot of the discourse is currently focussed on women, diversity does not start and stop with gender. There’s a lot to be done to support other minority and historically disadvantaged groups in the workforce. My hope is that with greater female representation, particularly in senior leadership positions, we’ll continue to see structural and cultural barriers to workplace equality being challenged, and more diversity of thought and action contributing to better working conditions, and professional and personal outcomes for everyone.  

My hope is that in a few years we won’t need quotas because our workplaces, rich with diverse perspectives, will self-regulate and intrinsically understand the value that diversity provides. Until then, I’m for gender quotas and targets to help us on our way.

What do you think of workplace gender quotas? Does your workplace have targets in place? Why do you think we need or not need them?  

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