The Speaker
Thursday, 18 April 2024 – 22:19

Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a quota-filler

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Gender quotas: setting the wrong role model for young girls

‘I cannot believe Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt think they’ve done enough by promising one of the top 4 Cabinet posts to a woman? They’re both blokes. So they think it’s ok for 1 out of top 5 jobs to be held by a woman! Seriously? It’s 2019 guys.’

Seriously? It’s 2019, and people still think women can’t do it on their own. 

In a tweet last week, former MP Nick Boles implied that the former Conservative leadership candidates should be pledging for gender balance in their Cabinet. Valuing gender over competency, the tweet echoed support for positive discrimination. 

Since the tweet, Boris Johnson has secured premiership and allocated several Cabinet positions to women – all without government-mandated discrimination. So far Liz Truss has made International Trade Secretary; Priti Patel Home Secretary; Amber Rudd Work and Pensions Secretary; Nicky Morgan Culture Secretary and Theresa Villiers Environment Secretary. Despite the grievances of Nick Boles, each were naturally appointed on merit – a positive message for young girls. 

Gender quotas 

But, for many, merit-orientated politics is not enough. In a society punctured by inequality, many instead value positive discrimination. Simply put, positive discrimination involves granting advantage to certain groups who are often underrepresented, be it because of their race, gender or sexuality. Exercised across modern businesses, institutions and electoral ballots, the practice can take a variety of forms, from outreach campaigns to targeted advertising. Increasingly, affirmative action has manifested in mandated quotas, legally requiring the representation of a specific number of women or minorities. 

Take Belgium, where the fight against gender inequality is fierce – legislated quotas are enforced in both the Single/Lower House and Upper House. On the Belgium electoral lists, differences in the number of candidates of each sex cannot be more than one, and the top two candidates legally cannot be same sex, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). If a party does not comply, their candidate list is simply not submitted to the electoral authorities. 

Currently, the UK has no legislated parliamentary quotas – but there have been proposals. IDEA report that women’s groups have advocated for a panoply of measures to enhance representation, for instance the Women’s Committee of the Scottish Trade Union Congress have pushed for parallelism: proposing a 50/50 gender balance in the Scottish parliament.

So what’s the appeal? Adherents of positive action often argue that women in top positions will act as role models for young girls, enhancing self-selection over time. Quotas will offer a fast-track for progress, sculpting attitudes and altering the gendered orthodoxy of the public sphere. Women will be motivated, they just need to be put there first. 

The wrong role model  

Yet, it’s the putting there that’s the problem. Mandated quotas undeniably enhance the physical representation of marginalised groups, but they’re a superficial remedy. Appearing beautifully progressive, quotas easily garner support – but in reality, they have a dangerous side-effect. Women internalise the wrong role model. 

If we value the idea of role models, we must consider that there are essentially two types we can set. First, women who have entered Cabinet off of their own competence, calibre and stamina, competing with male rivals and thriving amongst them. Or, our exemplars could be women who have been granted the position purely as a token of gesture, because people assumed they couldn’t get it alone. Do we want our young girls growing up striving to be a quota-filler or a gifted member of the Cabinet? 

It’s not a fair role model for our young boys, either. The mechanics of statutory quotas, like that of Belgium, mean that competent men can be positively discriminated against in order to fulfil the righteous shortlists. Sidelined from an electoral ballot or ministerial position, men will ingest the idea that, no matter their skill or ambition, their gender could destruct it all. That’s a surefire way to deter men from politics. 

Let’s assume that gender quotas do have a role-model effect. Imagine that exposure to women in top political posts inspires little girls, and young boys graciously accept possible discrimination. If we really interiorise this, we must extend the logic. We would have to consider role models of each age, disability, ethnicity and sexuality – in order to encourage their younger counterparts. Should Cabinet, say, reserve three positions for bisexual ministers? Quota-filling women, selected to fill a gender requirement, may certainly inspire a strata of youth, but it becomes difficult to draw the line on paternalism. Maybe we are teaching the wrong role model by even implying that we need role models to aim high. 

A deeper remedy 

Instead, we should honour merit. Boles’ tweet implies that the Cabinet posts must be filled by more women, no matter their aptitude for the job. Hindering the proficiency of Cabinet, this would only be symbolic representation. A deeper remedy would be to ensure that women’s issues are effectively addressed by males, if they are a better candidate, and ensure that women face equal opportunity. Faced with the same educational opportunities; career openings and encouragement, all that stands in a woman’s way should be whether she bears the skills necessary for the post. Women must strive to be ideal candidates, not token candidates. Secure equality of opportunity, and equality outcomes may naturally ensue. 

Forcing equality of outcome is just not the answer. Boles’ tweet succinctly captures the pseudo-morality of such positive action. Quotas are not really solving anything: they are taking a painkiller, instead of working hard at physiotherapy to fix the problem. Sure, they’re good for public consumption – politicians definitely look progressive if they increase female incumbents, but they’re not the way to genuinely inspire.  

Looking at Johnson’s cabinet, women must remember that we don’t need quotas to succeed. It’s 2019, it’s time we revalue meritocracy, and it’s time we realise women can do it on their own.

Skip to content