Gender Quotas: Reasonable or Radical?

“Political Affirmative Action” is the moniker a New York Times writer gave gender quotas (Rampbell 2009, 1). Yet, this name fails to convey the importance of incentivizing government and businesses to begin including women in their leadership. Women are half of the world’s population, which necessitates more representation in governments and boardrooms than what we currently have, with women comprising only 27% of Congress. This places the United States in 101st place globally for the percentage of female representation in government (“Women in Government” 2018). Despite the social backlash against gender quotas, such as quota implementation and the probable impossibility of them ever being carried out, implementing quotas can help bring more women and their intellectual capital into influential positions, inspire younger women to strive for those positions and help make those workplaces more welcoming to women who seek them in the future. First, I will explain the value of women in politics and business, which will give context to why quotas bringing in more women will benefit those institutions overall. Second, I will examine how quotas could normalize the presence women in those fields, which could result in changing the existing cultures in those fields, and inspiring younger women to enter those fields. Third, I will explore the concept of quota stigmatization, and how it ignores systemic inequalities against women that gender quotas are supposed to help mitigate. Fourth, I will address the practical reality of implementing gender quotas in the United States and the low likelihood of it ever happening. Lastly, I conclude with the reminder that gender quotas are only one part of the solution, and much more needs to be done to achieve more female representation in both Congress and the boardroom.

Women involved in politics and business offer different perspectives, thus contributing to the diversity of knowledge on various issues, as well as dismantling the stigma of politics and business being “a man’s game”. Henderson and Jeydel (2010) concluded in their study that the presence of women is important in government and business as they draw attention to overlooked women’s issues and reinforce the social idea that women can achieve high power positions in those areas (Henderson and Jeydel 2010, 35). Pearson and Dancey (2011) expanded on Henderson and Jeydel’s (2010) by examining one-minute floor speeches (Pearson and Dancey 2011, 497).

They found that congresswomen in both parties are significantly more likely than men to discuss women, enhancing women’s representation (Pearson and Dancey 2011, 493). Simon and Palmer (2010) seemingly disputed this with their study that concluded that there was no significant difference in the voting scores or roll call scores of female or male members of House (Simon and Palmer 2010, 230). However, they also conceded that women’s legislative agendas were different as they focused more on women’s issues (Simon and Palmer 2010, 245). Women bring much needed awareness to women’s issues, and are necessary in our political and financial institutions. More women brought by quotas can intensify this effect and make women’s issues in politics and business a more widespread and openly discussed topic. Additionally, while descriptive representation may not necessarily result in better substantive representation, Pearson and Dancey (2011) theorized that the rationale behind the greater likelihood for women acting on behalf of women are women’s common socialization, experiences and perspectives that create a sense of mutuality among women (Pearson and Dancey 2011, 255). Therefore, it is likely that women are the best people to represent women’s issues since they have common ground in their experience, which brings attention to problems that are often ignored.

In addition to raising awareness on overlooked issues, quotas can help normalize women in government and business, inspiring new generations to those positions to further integrate women in those workplaces, and combating the idea that women cannot succeed in these fields. Campbell and Wolbrecht (2006) found that the more women politicians are made visible by national news coverage, the more likely adolescent women indicate an interest in engaging in politics (Campbell and Wolbrecht 2006, 233). Quotas can help provide a wider sample of women to serve as achievable examples to which adolescent women can aspire.  The societal influence that quotas can help strengthen, could also help with the major problem that Lawless and Fox (2012) identify as the reason women do not win office: they do not run (Lawless and Fox 2012, 30). One reason is the “gendered psyche”, when women doubt whether they are qualified to run or whether they would even win (Lawless and Fox 2012, 10). The “gendered psyche” is a manifestation of the idea of politics and business being exclusively male fields, where only men can succeed, as well as the lack of encouragement from family and colleagues, and simultaneous discouragement from society, for women to run. However, quotas can bring more women, who can serve as role models of success,  into those fields. Furthermore, when those women are in powerful positions in government and the corporate world, they could be more sensitive to the particular issues that women face while trying to get to those positions. They then can help establish better pipelines or a more inclusive work culture to welcome women into government and business, which can help further combat the self-defeatist nature of the gendered psyche.

Quotas can also help change the work environment of government and business when women are finally in office. The competitive, cut-throat nature of politics and finance does not appeal to women, as Niderle and Vesterlund (2007) found (Niderle and Vesterlund 2007, 1067). Women tend to avoid competition, and prefer a more cooperative environment, while men tend to intentionally seek competition (Niderle and Vesterlund 2007, 1069). Having more women in office could possibly foster a more collegial environment, a culture more aligned with their preferences, which could help all the women perform better in their fields. However, there is always the risk of quota stigmatization, which ignores the social and institutional inequalities that women face. Dahlerup (2007) discusses quota stigmatization, where women are perceived as less qualified or are stigmatized based on the assumption that they received their position solely due to their gender (Dahlerup 2007, 245). Nonetheless, the more women that enter those professions, the more their conception of women being less qualified would most likely change, as the concept of women holding executive positions is normalized (Dahlerup 2007, 250). Furthermore, quota stigmatization is based on the assumption that men and women have equal opportunities, resources and encouragement to pursue careers in government and business. Quota stigmatization ignores the social and institutional inequalities that exist for women when trying to enter, and continue to progress in those fields. For instance, Anzia and Berry’s (2011) study found that only the best, most over- performing congresswomen are elected to office, congresswomen secure 9% more federal discretionary funds, and sponsor and cosponsor more bills than their male counterparts (Anzia and Berry 2011, 478). Therefore, women have to put in more effort to keep their seats than men. Quotas’ possible effect of normalizing women in these fields can aid in alleviating some of the extreme pressure women feel in keeping their seats due to sexism, by making women in those fields more commonplace and reducing the intense standards for keeping their positions.

More opposition arises when one considers the practical issues with implementing a gender quota in the United States, and deciding what percentage the quota should be. The exact percentage that the quota should be set as, could differ for each chamber of Congress or each area of the country. However, it ultimately should incentivize political parties and the country to elect more women than we have currently, which is not representative of the amount of women in the country, nor the amount of women that vote. Dahlerup (2007) discussed the intense merit- based culture of the United States, which would make it unlikely that gender quotas would ever be implemented (Dahlerup 2007, 259). However, this does not detract from the potential benefits of a gender quota that are demonstrated in other countries. Additionally, as more highly industrialized, European countries such as Germany, implement quotas for boardrooms, the United States could one day follow the trend. Norris and Inglehart (2010) found that the highest rates of women in government are generally correlated with high levels of development, secularization and egalitarian attitudes towards women (Norris and Inglehart 2010, 128). There is hope that the United States will come to gender parity eventually, however, a gender quota could aid in achieving such equality sooner.

Quotas are not the only answer to achieving more female representation in government and business; attention should also be focused on other institutional and social reform that is more conducive to women’s lives. If there are no women willing to run, the gender quota system will not even be possible. In addition to gendered psyche, Lawless and Fox (2012) discuss two other problems that prevent women from running (Lawless and Fox 2012, 167-170). Traditional family roles for women take up time for married women and result in less encouragement to run for office or engage in political discussions by parents (Lawless and Fox 2012, 167). Masculinized ethos causes parties to recruit less women, creates a sexist corporate culture and causes fewer colleagues to encourage women to run for office (Lawless and Fox 2012, 167). Quotas at the recruitment levels can help mitigate the problem of masculinized ethos, yet these problems are social manifestations of sexism that are not going to be solved solely with quotas. There needs to be further institutional change to make government and businesses more accommodating for familial responsibilities, to aid in reducing the effect of traditional family roles. This could mean allowing for part-time work, working from home and reducing the stigma against taking maternity and paternity leave. Likewise, both families and colleagues need to begin encouraging their female colleagues and children to become engaged in politics and run for office or strive for the high positions in the corporate ladder. We need to combat the social notion that women do not have a place in these fields and encourage them to run, because, as according to Brooks’ (2013) research, they are not generally disadvantaged by their gender in the eyes of the public (Brooks 2013, 30).

Ultimately, despite quota stigmatization and the low likelihood of quotas ever being a reality in America, there are multiple benefits to having a gender quota. Gender quotas bring more women into government and business, which results in the sharing of more diverse opinions, which translates into better policy and more sound financial decisions. Furthermore, the normalization of women in those high power positions can help galvanize more women to enter those fields, change the culture there to be more conducive to the way women perform work and change media bias for politicians. It can also help mitigate some social inequalities present in those positions once women are in positions of power to enact change. However, despite the improbability of gender quotas being implemented, gender quotas have substantial benefits that could benefit women in society, making them a worthy proposal to consider at the very least. Their possible impact can serve as a beginning in addressing the systematic inequality that women still face in the workplace. We must also address the lack of social support for women considering running for office or striving for the high power management position, that prevent women from even entering the race. We, as a society, must address the deep, systematic institutional and social biases that make women doubt their own abilities, or risk losing their talents.


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